Kingman Arizona, 9 February 1997. Travelling at more than 90mph, the Amtrak Southwest Chief was derailed on a bridge which had been partially swept away in a flash flood. Out of the 309 people on the train, 116 suffered injuries. But, only 16 required hospital treatment and no lives were lost. Much of the credit for the survival of the train's occupants must go to the construction methods used in todays railways, both in terms of the track and the rail vehicles.
DetailsBetween Chicago in the North and Los Angeles on the west coast, Amtrak Intercity operates a regular, daily service. This important train is the Southwest Chief and carries passengers between these two American cities through "wild-west" country. The train's route takes it through northern Arizona on Burlington - Sante Fe Railroad metals. Here, in a remote spot to the west of Kingman, a small town approximately 180 miles (225Km) north of Pheonix, the line crosses a wash. This is a flood-prone but normally dry stream. The railroad is carried on a wooden trestle bridge for a distance of about 30 feet (9m) at a height that varies between 5 feet (1.5m) and 7 feet (2.1m).
The area around Kingman had been experiencing severe thunderstorms. Up to three inches of rain had fallen in some parts and some flash flooding had occurred. Overnight, several motorists had become stranded and two had had to be rescued by helicopter.
It was estimated that around one inch of rain had fallen around Kingman that morning. In view of the severity of the weather an inspector had been sent out along the line. He had reached the bridge at about 0130 - 0200 had had found nothing amiss. But, at some point between his visit and the arrival of the Southwest Chief, water in the wash had risen and flowed with such ferocity that much of the support structure had been swept away. Part of it was later found over a quarter of a mile away, alongside Route 66. What was left of the bridge was little more than the bridge decking suspended by the rail line over the gap.
Roller CoasterThe eastbound Southwest Chief departed Los Angeles at 2035 on Friday at the start of its regular, daily run to Chicago. The train was hauled by four diesel locomotives and consisted of seven baggage cars and nine passenger cars. These latter vehicles were of the double-decker type and included several sleeping-cars.
At around 0400 having traelled some 380 miles (620Km) the train approached Kingman from the west. At a distance of 100 - 200 yards (90m - 180m) from the bridge, both the engineers saw what one described as a "hump" in the track ahead. Simultaneously they reached for the emergency brake, knowing that at the speed their train was going, there was no hope of it stopping in time. As they came to the bridge, one of the engineers described the effect "It felt like the engine was launched". Incredibly, the track held its alignment as one by one each locomotive and then each following car passed over. But, as each successive vehicle traversed the remains of the bridge, it was forced lower and one of the rails broke under the strain. Even so, the train continued to cross the gap and, importantly, remained upright. For the passengers, it was a frightening "roller coaster" ride as each car dipped then rose to crash against a retaining wall. One described it as like being in a car going down the side of a mountain. Another told of how he had been sitting in his seat one moment and then hitting his head on the ceiling the next.
The train finally came to rest with a sleeping car, named "State of Maryland", spanning the gap. All the cars remained upright and in line. There were 291 passengers and 18 crew members on the train, but there were no fatalities. The travellers were ferried to Kingman where 116 needed treatment for their injuries. Most of these were relatively minor. But, 16 had injuries severe enough to require hospitalisation.
Surviving the CatastropheIn an earlier era it is probable that the accident at Kingman would have been a disaster of much greater proportions. It is very likely that severe injuries would have been more numerous and there would almost certainly have been a number of deaths. The ability of the majority of the train to cross such a severely disabled bridge undoubtedly contributed to the comparatively light casualty rate. The all-welded track played a part in this. The rails, secured to the decking continued to span what had effectively become a "hole in the road. The train was therefore able to continue over the wash albeit in a somewhat ingracious manner. Had the track been laid with individual rails, there is a strong likelihood that they would have become separated, destroying the route across and creating a gap into which the cars could tumble.
Couplings between vehicles held when it was most vital. As the track disappeared from beneath the wheels of a vehicle, the couplings of the cars on either side, which were on firm ground could suspend the stranded car and maintain it in an upright position and in line with the rest of the train. It was most fortunate feature that the span of the bridge was less than a car's length. Had it been longer, the foregoing might have been quite academic.
It is a well-established fact of road safety that accident survivability is improved if automobile occupants can be contained within the vehicle. The increased use of seat belts has led to a dramatic fall in impact-injuries (particularly head injuries) caused as motorists are ejected from their cars in a collision. The value of containing occupants within rail vehicles in an accident has long been known in railway safety circles. Instead of disintegrating, the metal construction of the cars absorbed much of the impact and provided a secure cocoon for passengers.
One recent innovation proved its worth at Kingman that morning. It is now compulsory for all US passenger train locomotives to be equipped with "crash-proof" fuel tanks. As the fourth and last loco took its turn crossing the bridge, a rail sheared and went up through its under side and became embedded in the baggage car following. As the broken rail made its excursion through the locomotive, it damaged the fuel tanks. The locomotive was a new GEC-built machine which incorporated the "crash-proof" fuel tanks and only minor leakage of diesel fuel occurred. This can be compared with a 1995 accident in Maryland when 11 passengers were killed. Ruptured fuel tanks sprayed fuel over the leading car, incinerating it.
NTSB ReportThe report of the National Transportation Safety Board laid the blame for the accident on the procedures of the Railroad that owns the track. The NTSB's report points to Burlington - Santa Fe Railroad's failure to inspect bridges properly for flood damage. The inspector who was sent to examine the bridge had no expertise in bridge inspections. BMSF has since changed its procedures. Speed restictions are now in force whenever a flood alert is issued and track inspectors have received training on bridges. More details...
Sources: Amtrak, Magellan, Contemporary news reports from CNN, Washington Post, Philadelphia Enquirer, Las Vegas Review
Copyright © David Fry 1998
This file last updated: