Amtrak derailment comes on first day of faster service

Last Updated Dec 18, 2017 6:41 PM EST

DUPONT, Wash. -- An Amtrak train that derailed south of Seattle, killing a number of passengers and injuring dozens, was making its first run as part of a higher speed service that local authorities had warned could be dangerous.

Amtrak Train 501 departed from Tacoma shortly before 8 a.m. local time on Monday. It can carry up to 250 people, but Amtrak said there were about 80 passengers on board at the time. Transitdocs.com, a website that tracks the locations and speeds of Amtrak trains, said it was going 81.1 mph moments before the derailment.

The Washington State Department of Transportation posted information about the $180.7 million project online that said the maximum speed along that stretch of track is 79 mph. The new route was designed to speed up service by removing passenger trains from a route along Puget Sound that's bogged down by curves, single-track tunnels and freight traffic.

The department billed the project as a "more frequent, more reliable, and faster Amtrak Cascades service."

The project underwent two phases of testing that began in mid-January, the department said. The first test sought to stabilize the track before checking its signals and commissioning work. In February, the second phase tested the tracks and signals at speeds up to 79 mph during non-commuter hours.

"We are aware of the fact that this was a called an inaugural run but we want to check and make sure what that exactly means," Bella Dinh-Zarr, a board member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said in a news conference Monday.

Earlier this month, the mayor of Lakewood, Washington, a city along the route, expressed concerns about the risk of a deadly crash, though he thought it would involve a fast-moving train hitting a car or pedestrian at a crossing.

"Come back when there is that accident, and try to justify not putting in those safety enhancements, or you can go back now and advocate for the money to do it, because this project was never needed and endangers our citizens," Mayor Don Anderson said, according to local outlet KOMO-TV.

Last week, the nearby military facility Joint Base Lewis-McChord posted a safety video about the high-speed train, warning drivers to never stop on the tracks.