Equipment raises a passenger car from the Empire Builder that derailed near Joplin on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021. Credit: Colin Thompson / Havre Daily News. May not be republished without permission of Havre Daily News.

Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Railroad Administration have descended on a remote stretch of railroad track west of Havre this week trying to figure out why Amtrak’s Empire Builder passenger train derailed Saturday, killing three and injuring scores more. 

The derailment was the deadliest railroad accident in the United States since 2017.

The Empire Builder, which runs daily between Chicago and Seattle and Portland, was traveling west near Joplin on Saturday when it derailed at approximately 4 p.m. on tracks owned by BNSF Railway. The train consisted of two locomotives and 10 cars. Eight of the passenger cars derailed, with some falling on their side. The train was carrying 141 passengers and 16 crew members. Within hours of the derailment, NTSB and FRA dispatched teams to the site to investigate the cause. While the two entities are working together, they are expected to issue separate reports, a process expected to take months, though preliminary findings could be available within 30 days.

On Monday afternoon, NTSB Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg promised his team will determine what happened and make recommendations to ensure it doesn’t happen again. 

“We are not ruling anything out at this point,” he said. “We don’t know if it was a track issue or a mechanical issue with the train itself.” 

Investigators have found that the train was moving at 75 to 78 mph at the time of the wreck, just below the track’s 79 mph speed limit. BNSF inspects the tracks at least twice a week, and the last inspection on that stretch of track occurred Sept. 23, two days before the derailment. The train derailed prior to going through a switch, a piece of track that connects two adjacent sections of track. 

Landsberg said investigators are trying to figure out if some passengers might have been ejected from the train during the derailment, something that has happened in previous incidents. 

Investigators are interviewing Amtrak and BNSF employees who were on board the derailed train or the area of Joplin on Saturday. They have secured camera footage from the Amtrak locomotive leading the derailed train and a BNSF freight train that had passed through the area about 80 minutes earlier. That footage, which shows the track ahead of the train, could help investigators determine if there was a problem with the track, such as a broken rail or other components. 

While passenger trains are considered one of the safest ways to travel, America’s national railroad has had a rash of deadly derailments in recent years. In 2015, eight people were killed when an Amtrak train derailed on a curve near Philadelphia, and in 2017 a train south of Seattle derailed on a bridge over Interstate 5, killing three people. 

Landsberg said investigators will be on-site for at least a week, though they will likely hand control of the tracks back to BNSF before that. BNSF’s rail line across the northern part of Montana is among the busiest routes in the country and is a key gateway for freight to and from the Pacific Northwest. 

Dozens of people were injured in the incident and some were sent to hospitals as far away as Great Falls and Kalispell. On Sunday afternoon, at least five people were still hospitalized. 

On Sunday, Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn wrote that the railroad will cooperate fully with investigators and is doing what it can to help those impacted. 

​​“We are in mourning today for the people who lost their lives due to the derailment, as well as the many others who were injured,” Flynn wrote in a letter published Sunday afternoon. “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.”

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Justin Franz is a freelance writer, photographer and editor based in Whitefish. Originally from Maine, he is a graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism and worked for the Flathead Beacon for nine years. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Seattle Times and New York Times. Find him at justinfranz.com or follow him on Twitter.