An Amtrak train headed from Vermont to Washington, D.C., on Monday hit rocks that had fallen onto the track from a ledge, spilling the locomotive and a passenger car down an embankment, derailing three other cars and injuring seven people, authorities said.
The Vermonter train carrying 98 passengers and four crew members derailed about 10:30 a.m. in Northfield, about 20 miles southwest of Montpelier. Officials with the Federal Railroad Administration are investigating.
“This was a freak of nature,” Gov. Peter Shumlin said at a news conference.
One of the injured people was airlifted to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire and was being evaluated in the emergency room, spokesman Rick Adams said. Six others went to Central Vermont Medical Center with injuries including neck, back and shoulder pain and lightheadedness.
The Federal Railroad Administration said a crew member was seriously injured.
The track where the crash occurred had been part of a $220-million upgrade of New England Central Railroad tracks funded with help from a $50-million federal recovery grant. In early 2013, after the upgrade, the speed limit in the area was increased from 55 to 59 mph.
“There is no reason to believe there was any negligence on anyone’s part,” Shumlin said. “We don’t have all the details, but this track was rebuilt. It was a state-of-the-art track. Ledge slides happen.”
Federal records show the company that operates that stretch of tracks, which is part of the Genesee & Wyoming Railroad, has had four accidents since 2006 that could have involved debris on the tracks.
In the railroad’s 54 accidents since 2006, three people died.
Federal safety rules for tracks that carry passengers require at least two inspections every week, with at least one day between each inspection.
State officials said a freight train had passed over the same tracks Sunday night with no problems.
Officials said there’s no technology that could have alerted the crew to the slide.
“There is not really anything that’s going to detect this kind of thing,” said Dan Delabruere, the rail chief of the Vermont Agency of Transportation.
Numerous derailments around the world have been caused by debris on tracks, many linked to heavy rains that trigger slides or heavy winds that knock down trees. In 2010, a train in Beijing hit mounds of debris left on the track after a landslide, killing 19 people.
The region near Monday’s derailment received 2.5 inches of rain Thursday and Friday, according to the National Weather Service.
Company officials confirmed details of the crash but did not immediately provide a comment.
Bob Redmond of Bay City, Mich., was sitting in the front row of the third car while on a foliage tour when the train derailed. He looked out the window and saw the car that had been ahead of his was now alongside him.
“It was just going the other way, and we started tipping sideways and down we went,” he said.
The Vermonter runs daily. The 13-hour, 45-minute trip leaves St. Albans, Vermont, at 8:58 a.m., then passes through cities including Burlington, Vt., Springfield, Mass., and New York.
Besides sending the locomotive and a passenger car over an embankment, the crash knocked three cars off the track. They remained upright.
“We were fortunate when you see what happened,” Redmond said. “It could’ve been a whole lot worse, that’s for sure.
Tracy Zaplitny, also of Bay City, said she and other passengers broke a window to get out of the train.
“It’s a huge wreck up there,” she said.
Passengers helped others after the crash. Redmond said because he was in the front row, he got off the train first, and he and others started helping people off the train.
The railroad administration and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating.
The clearing of the track was to begin immediately, though officials did not know when the section is reopened. Amtrak, meanwhile, is planning to bus passengers booked on the Vermonter to and from Springfield.