The layout of train tracks and signals in the vicinity of today's Chase train wreck is a standard one throughout the industry and required no changes in the wake of a fatal passenger train crash near that same spot in 1987, a federal safety official said.
"That is not a complicated arrangement," said Edward R. English, director of the Office of Safety Enforcement with the Federal Railroad Administration. "That is a fairly normal, standard arrangement within the industry."
The layout in that area narrows from four tracks several miles south of the Gunpowder River bridge to three tracks and then two tracks going over the bridge, including several switch-overs before the bridge.
"You can see this uniformly anywhere in the country when you're looking to cross trains from one track to another," said English.
English and other federal officials stressed that human error, including drug use, played a major role in the 1987 crash.
"There were no physical changes ordered as far as the track layout, signal placement in Chase, Maryland," said English. "The physical layout of the track and signals really had no bearing on the first accident."
A spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, meanwhile, said that "all the equipment worked fine" in the earlier, fatal crash. "The signal checked out. There was a guy on drugs who didn't pay attention to the signal. . . . There's no reason to change the signals in a case like that."
In the wake of that first crash, however, federal authorities did order several operational safety changes, including:
* Pre-employment and random drug testing for all operating train crews;
* Cab signals on all locomotives operating along the Northeast corridor, a system that gives a constant display inside the train cab itself of the safety signals that appear along the wayside;
* A mechanical system on board every train requiring that engineers acknowledge and respond to the changes in safety signals.
Federal investigators had blamed the 1987 accident on the drug-impaired Conrail crew's failure to heed a stop sign and the lack of automatic stopping devices.
Shortly after the first accident, the FRA ordered automatic stopping devices on all trains along the Northeast corridor by the mid-1990s. Amtrak also ordered lower speeds along that corridor during peak passenger hours.