As It Happens

Residents who fought new Amtrak route say derailment could have been prevented

The city of Lakewood, Wash., has long been warning that the high-speed trains on the new route are dangerously close to cars and pedestrians.
An Amtrak train making the first-ever run along a faster new route hurtled off the overpass Monday near Tacoma, Wash., and spilled some of its cars onto the highway below. (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)

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David Anderson fought for years to halt the construction of the new Amtrak route that was the scene of a deadly derailment on Monday.

The train was making its first-ever run along the new route when it hurtled off an overpass south of Seattle, spilling some of its cars onto the highway below and killing an undisclosed number of people. 

It was the first day Amtrak trains began using the new inland route between the Washington cities of Tacoma and Olympia, part of a project to reduce travel time. 

The cause of the crash is under investigation. 

Anderson is a neighborhood association president from Lakewood, Wash., one of the towns through which the rerouted trains travel.

Lakewood unsuccessfully sued the Washington State Department of Transportation in 2013 in a bid to halt the $181-million Amtrak project, and the city's mayor warned earlier this month the high-speed trains were dangerously close to cars and pedestrians.

As It Happens spoke with Anderson on the heels of Monday's disaster. Here is part of that conversation.

When you heard the news about this Amtrak train derailment, what went through your mind?

My daughter had texted me because she works south of where the accident occurred, and she had just passed under the bridge where the train derailed. So that's how I found out. 

We have long protested that development because of the safety issue. And then to find out the very first train on the very first day of the inaugural run should not only derail, but people would die?

We grieve for those families who now must make a phone call to find out about the condition of their loved ones. 

What did you and the community believe or fear might happen?

We had obvious safety concerns about that because our one square mile of very poor people have no way out of town except to cross the tracks. 

We were united in opposing this train because across the highway, across the railroad tracks, is a middle school. The only way many of these students get to school is walking or by skateboard or by bicycle, so that is their primary avenue of travel.

And those trains come through at-grade crossing. That is, there's no separation between track and traffic. They're on the same level.

We argued for bridge separations but, for whatever reason, it was judged either too costly probably, or unnecessary. Nevertheless, that's our position that we maintain.

The train derailed about 64 kilometres south of Seattle on Monday morning, spilling at least one train car on to busy Interstate 5. (KOMO-TV via Associated Press)

The mayor of your city, Don Anderson [no relation], ... said, "Come back when there is that accident, and try to justify not putting in those safety enhancements, or you can go back now and advocate for the money to do it, because this project was never needed and endangers our citizens."

Is that what he was referring to? Something similar to what we've seen today?

Who could have anticipated a disaster of such proportion as this? So it was almost prescient for our mayor to say what he did. 

But, nevertheless, it was a statement worth making because that's the position the city and our community has argued from Day 1. This was an eventuality.

Deadly Amtrak derailment in Washington state

5 years ago
Duration 0:57
Aerial and ground footage show the destruction in Pierce County, south of Seattle, after an Amtrak train en route to Oregon crashed on Monday morning.

It seemed that the reason Amtrak wanted this was to shorten the trip that passengers would make on this route by 10 minutes. Was there a demand for some kind of a faster train to get people to their destination?

It was a railroaded, to use that word, issue, because stimulus dollars were available. The money was spent. The need was not substantiated in the lawsuit the city had against the Washington State Department of Transportation.

You have been fighting against this train. Your community attempted to sue the Washington State Department of Transportation to try and stop this project. This must be a very difficult day for you. 

This is a tragedy that should never, ever have happened. The need was not substantiated. It was a money-bought propaganda project. And now we have families that will never, ever outlive his. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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