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What caused the Amtrak train derailment?

Investigators are looking into the tragic incident in Montana which left at least five people dead after eight train cars jumped from the railroad.

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What caused the Amtrak train derailment?
JACOB CORDEIRO REUTERS

On Saturday a huge derailment on an Amtrak train in Montana left three dead and hospitalised at least seven passengers, but investigators are still unsure how the tragic accident occurred.

The ten-car Amtrak Empire Builder train 7/27 was completing a journey from Chicago to Seattle/Portland when eight cars jumped the tracks at around 4pm. The incident happened near Joplin, Montana, a small town of just 150 people around 30 miles south of the Canadian border.

In total there were 141 passengers and 16 crew members on board when the cars left the track and Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn issued a statement on Sunday, mourning those killed in the derailment.

"We have no words that can adequately express our sorrow for those who lost a loved one or who were hurt in this horrible event. They are in our thoughts and prayers," Flynn said.

Ongoing investigation to uncover the cause of the tragedy

In response to the incident a 14-member National Transportation Safety Board investigative team was despatched to the site to look into the cause of the accident. The team includes both investigators and railroad signal specialists, and law enforcement also inspected the scene on Sunday.

Matt Jones, spokesperson for BNSF Railway confirmed that the area of track where the accident took place was last inspected on Thursday, just two days before the fateful journey.

David Clarke, railroad safety expert and director of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Tennessee, has said that the accident appears to have occurred near a switch, which is used when the railway moves from a single to double track.

Clarke asked: “Did the switch play some role? It might have been that the front of the train hit the switch and it started fish-tailing and that flipped the back part of the train.”

However at this stage the cause has not been confirmed and trains operating in the area will now run a reduced service until the accident is better understood. New technologies introduced in recent years have largely prevented the ‘human error’ incidents were had previously been the largest cause of railway derailments.

Allan Zarembski, director of the University of Delaware’s Railway Engineering and Safety Program, told AP News that the new positive train control systems had “virtually eliminated” major derailments by human error. He suggested that the Montana derailment had likely stemmed from an issue with the train track or equipment on board.