By David Shepardson and Daniel Trotta
(Reuters) - The fatal derailment of an Amtrak train south of Seattle on Monday could intensify scrutiny of the national passenger railroad company's safety record, which was already under harsh criticism following a series of fatal incidents.
The cause of Monday's accident, which killed at least three people, has yet to be determined, and it could take months for investigators from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board to reach a conclusion.
Just last month, the chairman of the NTSB issued a scathing critique of Amtrak's culture, saying a future breakdown was likely, and the board made nine safety recommendations.
"Amtrak's safety culture is failing and is primed to fail again, until and unless Amtrak changes the way it practices safety management," NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said in a statement on Nov. 14.
Sumwalt's statement was made when the NTSB issued its findings on a fatal Amtrak accident in April 2016 in Pennsylvania, which it said was caused by "deficient safety management across many levels of Amtrak and the resultant lack of a clear, consistent and accepted vision for safety."
There was no indication that any of the same issues played a role in the Washington crash.
In the Pennsylvania accident, an Amtrak train struck a backhoe working on railroad tracks in Chester, Pennsylvania, killing two maintenance workers and injuring 41. It occurred a few miles south of the site of a May 2015 derailment in which eight people were killed and more than 200 injured.
Sumwalt told a hearing the board's "investigation revealed more than two dozen unsafe conditions and not all of these were rule-breaking by frontline employees."
Amtrak this past summer named former Delta Air Lines Chief Executive Officer Richard Anderson as co-CEO. Anderson on a call with reporters on Monday said he would not speculate on the cause of the crash.
Anderson said Amtrak takes NTSB recommendations from investigations "very seriously" and was continuing to make investments that the NTSB recommended.
"Safety is the highest priority of the Amtrak board," Anderson said.
Amtrak said in a memo to employees in November seen by Reuters that it had been "transforming our safety culture" since the Pennsylvania incident and had made numerous reforms, including to communication, training, safety efforts and creating a team that conducts safety audits. It also expanded drug and alcohol testing.
SLOW ROLLOUT OF SAFETY SYSTEM
On Monday, a U.S. congressman from Washington state called attention to the slow rollout of Positive Train Control, a system designed to automatically stop a train to prevent derailments caused by excessive speed, collisions with another train or passage through misaligned tracks.
"We don't know that it could have saved lives ... but it is a disappointment to me that we're not further along in the implementation of installing PTC, positive train control," Representative Denny Heck, a Democrat, told CNN.
Congress had mandated the implementation of Positive Train Control nationwide by the end of 2015, then extended that deadline until the end of 2018 when its installation became more complex than anticipated.
"There is a money issue because while Congress mandated the implementation of PTC on the railroads they didn't give any money for it, so it is self-funded," said Allan Zarembski, director of the Railroad Engineering and Safety Program at the University of Delaware.
Zarembski cautioned against assigning blame for Monday's accident, noting that Amtrak does not own the track where the accident occurred.
It is owned by the Seattle-area Sound Transit agency.
"If there was anything related to the track or the interaction between the vehicle and the track, that probably has nothing to do with the Amtrak safety culture issues that the NTSB reported on," Zarembski said.
"The railways generally are very safe," he said. "I'm very reluctant to point the finger and say the railroads are a major problem here."
A spokesman for Sound Transit, Geoff Patrick, said the track had recently been upgraded to handle passenger trains from its prior use for slow-moving freight trains. The curving stretch of track where the accident occurred had a speed limit of 30 miles per hour, and the speed of the train that derailed was “a focal point of the investigation,” Patrick said.
He said Sound Transit was part of the incident response and was working with the NTSB in its investigation.
(Reporting by David Shepardson in Washington and Daniel Trotta in New York; Additional reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, California; Editing by Leslie Adler)