Words can’t even express my shock, my dismay, a profound sense of cruel irony. Even if I didn’t know anybody on board Monday's Amtrak Cascades train 501, I would have been quite upset upon hearing the news about it derailing in Washington state, killing three and injuring many others. It's demoralizing for this horrific a derailment to happen on Amtrak’s first revenue run on a line that had been extensively rebuilt with state and federal funds — and on which Amtrak had successfully operated test trains for six months prior.
But when I awoke early to join my friend Jonathan on a six-day train trip to eastern Canada that we’ve been planning for four months, I was further stunned to learn that among the three confirmed fatalities yesterday were two dear friends and fellow members of the extended family of friends and advocates of passenger trains: Jim Hamre and Zack Willhoite. (Note: This is not WMATA's Jim Hamre.) The latest reports I’m hearing seem to indicate that they died from impact and not from injuries sustained, so at least it seems they did not experience prolonged suffering.
I’m sad to say that I did not know Zack all that well. I enjoyed spending time with him and Jim in Germany and the Netherlands last year prior to the InnoTrans expo in Berlin, which we all attended. He was a fun, quirky personalty who loved trains, but not quite as much as he loved buses. He owned a small collection of retired transit buses and worked for Pierce (County, WA) Transit overseeing its bus system. He had just gotten married two years ago.
Jim, however, I have known a lot longer. He was a true stalwart of rail passenger advocacy, and an all-around terrific guy. He was generous, affable, knowledgeable, and a straight shooter. Such fun to be around. He was one of the first friends I made among the volunteer leadership of the National Association of Railroad Passengers when I joined its staff in 2009. Since then, we’ve enjoyed many good times together, including a few memorable trips. Most recently, he, I and Charlie took a week-long extensive driving tour of the Canadian Rockies and south-central British Columbia, as well as eastern Washington and the Idaho panhandle. He spent most of his career with the Washington State DOT. He was a mentor to several young rail advocates, including my good friends JA Zumwalt and Hendrik de Kock.
I write this from this pleasant perch, gliding north along the Hudson River. While I am still coming to grips with the finality of what transpired, I have resolved that I will continue to enjoy this and every train ride because that’s what Jim and Zack would have wanted. I also believe that Jim would have reminded us not to take this tragedy as an excuse to not travel by train. Though calamity can strike any time and on any mode of travel, you are still many times safer on a train than you are in an automobile.
Much more will be written later, by me and many others, on the causes and consequences of yesterday’s disaster. But I find remarkable the fact that, given what happened to this train that was carrying around 70 people, there were only three fatalities. Still, one fatality is too many. I caution everyone not to read more into the situation than what’s been reported so far by the National Transportation Safety Board and reliable news sources, and to wait until the NTSB releases its final report before rushing into any new legislation or regulation.
Finally, it is true that tragedy has a way of bringing people closer together, and I have been heartened that the passenger train family feels closer in light of this one.
Those wishing to make a gift in memory of Jim and Zack have been asked to contribute to this GoFundMe. I will be making a gift. May they rest in peace.
This article was first published in my blog.