SEATTLE — The Amtrak train that derailed Monday was making the first trip for paying passengers over upgraded tracks in what was promised as a quicker run between Seattle and Portland, Oregon.
The train was travelling a route occasionally used by freight trains until $181 million of improvements that local officials opposed opened the stretch to passenger travel.
At least three people on board were confirmed killed, authorities said, when 13 train cars jumped the tracks, setting off a chain reaction in which several vehicles on Interstate 5 below also were hit.
A U.S. official who was briefed on the investigation said earlier that at least six people were killed. The difference in the number of fatalities could not immediately be reconciled. The official was not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
While the cause of the crash will take months to establish, even people who tried to stop the new route on safety grounds said the derailment surprised them.
Opponents said the route would expose car and pedestrian traffic to higher-speed passenger trains at more than a half-dozen street-level crossings in the small city of Lakewood just north of the crash site.
"These are new, upgraded tracks — that's what is so surprising about this," said John Niles with the Coalition for Effective Transportation Alternatives, which joined local elected officials in opposing the project. "They weren't worried about a train derailing."
Lakewood officials unsuccessfully sued in 2013 to stop the Point Defiance Bypass project, which redirected passenger trains from a curvy route along Puget Sound that competes with freight traffic and squeezes through single-track tunnels where only one train can go through at a time.
The city asserted that the state transportation department's environmental review of the new route was inadequate and failed to consider traffic, neighbourhood and other impacts. In March 2014, a judge dismissed the lawsuit.
The track is owned by Sound Transit, the public transit system for the Seattle area, which oversaw the upgrades and did extensive testing prior to Monday's public opening, agency spokeswoman Kimberly Reason said.
A federal official briefed on the investigation told The Associated Press that preliminary signs indicate that Train 501 may have hit something before going off the track about 40 miles (64 kilometres) south of Seattle. The official was not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
While it will take investigators months to determine the precise cause, speed may have been a factor.
Moments before the derailment the train was going 81.1 mph (130.5 kph), according to transitdocs.com, which maps train speeds using data from Amtrak's train tracker app.
The maximum speed drops from 79 mph (127 kph) to 30 mph (48 kph) for passenger trains just before the tracks curve to cross Interstate 5, according to a track chart prepared by the Washington State Department of Transportation.
Another Sound Transit spokeswoman, Rachelle Cunningham, confirmed the maximum allowable speed was 30 mph (48 kph) at the derailment point but could not say where that lower limit began.
Brown reported from Billings, Montana. Michael Sisak in Philadelphia and Michael Balsamo and Justin Pritchard in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
This story has been updated to reflect that authorities said Monday night that three people died. A U.S. official said earlier that six had died.
Phuong Le And Matthew Brown, The Associated Press
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