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Derailed Amtrak train stopped a few feet from parked freight cars

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012 9:12 a.m. CST • Updated: Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012 9:23 a.m. CST

(MCT) — CHICAGO — An Amtrak train that derailed at high speed in Michigan after departing Chicago on Sunday stopped only 21 feet before it would have collided with parked freight hopper cars, the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday.

Moments before the accident, the train traveled over a misaligned track switch that diverted it into a rail yard, investigators said.

The cause of the derailment near Niles, Mich., remains under investigation, safety board spokesman Terry Williams said. But the Amtrak engineer had a green signal allowing the train to proceed at maximum speed, Williams said.

The reversed track switch would appear to indicate human error on the part of Amtrak.

The accident occurred shortly after the train had stopped at the station in Niles and was accelerating along the 110 mph high-speed rail corridor in Michigan on the route between Chicago and Pontiac, Mich., via Detroit and Ann Arbor, officials said.

The train, which Amtrak said was outfitted with an event recorder, was traveling about 60 mph when it hit the misaligned track switch, a railroad source said. The engineer was thrown to the floor, but managed to throw the train into emergency braking mode, the source said.

Nine train passengers were injured, officials said. The train carried 174 passengers and four crew members, officials said.

Amtrak owns and operates the tracks in the area of the accident, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said. He declined to comment further, referring all questions to the NTSB.

The misaligned, or reversed, track switch sent the train into the rail yard instead of continuing on the main track it was on, the investigation has determined.

A derailing device had been installed between the yard track and the main track as a protective measure to derail any cars that might accidentally roll out of the yard before they could reach the main track, officials said.

The Amtrak train dislodged the derailing device, but the train did not derail at that point, investigators found.

The train continued on the yard track and derailed about 290 feet beyond the reversed switch, stopping with all cars upright, officials said.

“Empty ballast hopper cars were stored on the yard track and the passenger train came to a stop 21 feet from the nearest hopper car,’’ the NTSB said.

Sources said part of the investigation will focus on whether safety mechanisms on board the train were activated and operating correctly at the time of the accident. The Amtrak locomotive was a so-called “smart train,’’ equipped with a safety system called Incremental Train Control System that is designed to detect problems involving track switches, signals and railroad crossing warning devices.

Since early this year, Amtrak trains have been operating at up to 110 mph on about 80 miles of track in western Michigan and northern Indiana. It was unclear Tuesday whether speed restrictions have been imposed in the wake of the accident.

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