Updated on December 18 at 3:51 p.m.
A southbound Amtrak train derailed Monday morning south of Tacoma, Washington, leaving an undetermined number of casualties and generating dramatic images of cars dangling off an overpass over Interstate 5.
It was the first day of high-speed service along the line between Seattle and Portland. The reason for the derailment, at around 7:45 a.m. local time, was not immediately clear, and initial explanations and injury accounts aren’t often reliable. Officials said there were multiple deaths on the train, but none among motorists, even though the fallen coaches struck vehicles on the highway. The southbound lanes of I-5 were completely closed and were expected to remain closed for hours. Local officials said at least 77 people were hospitalized. Amtrak said the train, number 501, had 78 passengers and five crew members aboard.
The news is a blow to Amtrak, the beleaguered government-owned rail corporation that runs most intercity rail service in the United States. Derailments along train lines in the United States are somewhat common—from January through September, there were nearly 900—but they are seldom catastrophic or fatal. Passenger service in the United States is generally safe, and Amtrak in particular is very safe; in recent years, commuter railroads have been more lethal. When people are killed in train-related accidents, they are most often pedestrians or motorists struck by trains. Train accidents are most likely caused by equipment or track problems, rather than human error. The worst national rail disaster in recent years came in May 2015, when Amtrak 188 derailed in Philadelphia, along Amtrak’s crucial Northeast Corridor. That crash killed eight people.