Amtrak’s Chicago-bound Southwest Chief derailed early Monday on a stretch of track in western Kansas that had deteriorated so badly that the railroad was close to reducing train speeds in some spots from 60 mph to 30 mph.
A combined $27.6 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation, along with some state and local money, was supposed to fix the track, some of which dates to the 1940s and ’50s, but the funding wasn’t enough to rebuild the entire 300-mile stretch between Hutchinson, Kan., and La Junta, Colo.
The portion of the route where the derailment took place, between Dodge City and Garden City, Kan., was awaiting repairs to the track.
“It was definitely the older rail,” said Steve Cottrell, assistant to the city manager of Garden City, which applied for and received a federal grant to begin making the repairs in 2014.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating what caused the eastbound Southwest Chief to derail near Cimarron, Kan. Eight of the train’s nine cars derailed, according to Amtrak, including some that overturned.
At least 32 people were injured in the derailment, which happened about 160 miles west of Wichita. The train carried 131 passengers and 14 crew members.
Nearly all of the injured were treated and released, but two were in critical condition; they were airlifted to a hospital in Amarillo, Texas.
Some passengers recalled fearing for their lives just before the derailment.
Dave Gibbs of Colorado, who said he was headed to Lawrence for a possible chef’s job, said he felt the train “rattling back and forth.” The shaking lasted several seconds before the train began tipping, then coming to an abrupt stop that sent a woman tumbling into him.
Fifty-seven-year-old David Tisdale of Arizona said he was “waiting for the worst” and was afraid he was “going to die.”
Timothy Davidson of Nashville, Tenn., said he and others aboard the train heard what he called “a lot of clacking for about 20 minutes” before the accident, as if something came off the train.
He says the train just “didn’t sound right.”
Derek Kemp, who is moving back to Kansas City from California, said he was in a bathroom on the train and using a smartphone app that he says tracks the speed of trains. He says the app showed the train consistently traveling 85 to 90 mph in the hours leading to the accident.
A federal U.S. official who was briefed on the investigation said the Amtrak train appeared to have been traveling about 75 mph when the engineer pulled the emergency brake.
Colorado resident Kelsey Wilson, 21, was returning to Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo., when she was awakened early Monday. Wilson said she hit her head as the car became disconnected and overturned.
She described escaping through the top of the flipped car and then sliding down the side. She said she then “passed out” and was taken to a hospital, later being released with a neck brace.
Her traveling companion, 21-year-old Daniel Aiken, of Lenexa, said he heard people scream. He said they calmed down when they realized the train “wasn’t going to blow up.”
Another passenger, Daniel Szczerba, recalled a chaotic scene after the derailment. Many passengers were wandering around searching for relatives after becoming separated from them.
Later Monday, authorities were investigating whether an unreported vehicle crash may have damaged the railroad tracks before the train derailed.
Gray County Deputy J.G. Sharp said there was a separate vehicle accident that may have damaged the rails. Authorities were examining tire tracks leading to the train tracks, he said.
Garden City is among the towns along the route that have banded together to preserve the Southwest Chief route. Freight hauler BNSF owns the track and in recent years it had decided it did not move enough of its own traffic to maintain higher speeds for the passenger train, the only one that serves Kansas.
In its 2014 application for a federal grant, Garden City noted the degraded track conditions for the train, which connects Chicago and Los Angeles via Kansas City.
“Speeds have dropped from 90 mph in 2002 to 60 mph today and are in imminent danger of dropping again to 30 mph … slower than a farm tractor,” the city wrote. “If this decline is not reversed, the train will be terminated or rerouted.”
The application noted that “much of the rail is 30 percent past its normal useful life but still in generally good condition for salvage.”
The city’s application also noted that while BNSF could economically operate its handful of freight trains at slower speeds without publicly funded improvements, the delays added to Amtrak’s schedule would harm ridership on one of its most popular routes.
“A bumpy, rocking, nine-hour, 30 mph ride across Kansas and eastern Colorado is not an attractive option to consider,” the application said.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced in 2014 that the department would award $12.4 million to Garden City to make the track improvements.
The Kansas Department of Transportation, local governments, Amtrak and BNSF contributed a combined $9.8 million in matching funds.
The funding enabled the upgrade of 55 miles of older bolted rail with new, continuously welded rail, boosting the top speed on those sections from 60 mph to 80 mph.
The grant Garden City applied for — TIGER, which stands for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery — is a competitive grant program for discretionary funds launched with President Barack Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus. It’s a tool to make infrastructure improvements to highways, ports and transit.
Last year, the city of La Junta, Colo., won another $15.2 million from the program. Combined with another $9.8 million in state, local and private matching funds, the money was to be used to replace 39 miles of rail and repair 20 miles of roadbed in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico.
But Garden City noted in its 2014 grant application that such funding would address only the most urgent repair needs.
“Although making a significant improvement,” the city wrote, “the TIGER investment does not address the full rehabilitative needs of the route.”
Last week, BNSF announced a $100 million capital spending program for its network in Kansas this year, funding that will be used to replace rail, ties and ballast. However, the railroad did not plan any specific projects on the Southwest Chief’s route across western Kansas.
The work to rebuild the Southwest Chief’s track began last fall, Cottrell said, and is to resume this spring.
“We’re just in the first year of that,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.