January 16, 2020

All Aboard Washington Testifies For Rail Safety Legislation

Lloyd H. Flem

The impacts of the tragic December 18, 2017 Cascades 501 derailment on the Point Defiance Bypass are still being felt in Olympia. In response to the incident, which took the lives of three passengers, including our valued colleagues and friends Jim Hamre and Zack Willhoite, the House Transportation Committee (HTC) convened on January 15. The committee heard testimony on HB 2287, a bill intended to improve rail safety governance. The intent of the bill is to improve cooperation and coordination among the large number of responsible state and federal agencies.

AAWA’s Luis Moscoso and Lloyd Flem endorsed the bill on behalf of AAWA. We agreed that the lack of coordination between federal, state, and local agencies and private entities was a contributing factor to the disaster, and we applauded the proposed improvements in the institutional framework for rail safety. However, we emphasized that passenger trains are very safe, many times safer than private motor vehicles. We also emphasized that the excessive speed in this incident — 79 MPH in a 30 zone — would have brought about disaster, regardless of who owned the track, who operated the trains, or what specific passenger car equipment was involved.

We concluded with two additional requests:

  1. Return to full service on the Bypass as soon as possible, and
  2. Place a tangible, permanent memorial to those who lost their lives at the new Freighthouse Square Amtrak station in Tacoma. Jim and Zack were Pierce County residents who would have used the new station.

Among the others testifying were representatives of Lakewood and DuPont, whose safety concerns included grade crossings and train speeds through their communities. Rail labor and a small freight railroad also asked to be among those involved in the proposed consultant study HB 2287 would mandate.

Response from HTC members was affirmative, to both HTC staff and the prime sponsor Rep. Mari Leavitt, whose 28th District included the site of the derailment. There were few questions from HTC members. Our feeling is our testimony and that of other speakers was heard and respected. Based on our observations, we feel the bill will pass the 2020 Session of the Washington Legislature.