Amtrak workers apparently failed to properly hook up the brakes on the string of four locomotives that crashed into a Conrail freight train in eastern Baltimore County yesterday morning, the chief federal investigator said last night.
Jim Burnett, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board who is leading the investigation of the crash, said that only the brakes on the lead, diesel locomotive were working.
Someone apparently failed to properly connect the diesel's air compression brake system to that of three electric locomotives it was towing, he said.
Since the electric locomotives, which were not pulling any passenger cars, were "dead in tow" and not operating, they were not charging their own air brake systems -- and wound up creating a huge dead weight that the diesel alone could not stop.
Mr. Burnett said the crew members saw but could not obey a stop signal as they approached a switch near the Gunpowder River.
A 125-car coal train, headed from Harrisburg, Pa., to Baltimore's Bayview rail yard, was passing through the switch about 3:10 a.m. yesterday. The Amtrak locomotives were unable to stop and slammed into the middle of the coal train.
The crash site was about 100 yards north of the spot where in 1987 the Amtrak Colonial passenger train collided with a freight train, killing 16 and injuring more than 170.
Mr. Burnett said the brakes on the locomotives involved in yesterday's crash should have been hooked up.
The Amtrak train "was not designed to operate the way it was," he told reporters at a news conference in a Baltimore County hotel last night.
Tape recordings of the accident, summarized by Mr. Burnett, suggested the brakes were locked for about a minute and a half before the crash.
On one tape, Mr. Burnett said, the Amtrak conductor was heard shouting to the engineer seconds before the accident: "Are we going to crash, Ray? Are we going to crash?"
"We're going to hit it," the engineer radioed dispatchers a short time later.
Both crewmen aboard the Amtrak locomotives leapt for their lives and survived. They were the only people hurt in the collision.
Asked if the failure to connect the brakes triggered the accident, Mr. Burnett noted that under NTSB rules he could not comment on the cause of the crash. But he added, "The answer is pretty obvious."
An Amtrak spokesman earlier said it was "a bizarre coincidence" that yesterday's crash occurred within 100 yards of the site of the worst crash in Amtrak history.
"I don't know what could have caused this accident," said the spokesman Patrick G. Jeffery. "And frankly, it's going to take a while to figure out why this accident happened."
A team of eight NTSB investigators arrived within hours of the accident, took charge of the investigation and began assembling evidence.
Mr. Burnett told reporters yesterday morning that there were devices aboard the Amtrak and Conrail locomotives to record their speed and other operations, plus voice and data recordings by dispatchers. The crew members also submitted urine and blood samples for drug and alcohol testing, he said.
Residents of nearby communities who in 1987 plucked survivors from the burning wreckage of Amtrak Colonial passenger train said they heard the ear-piercing shriek of air brakes before the crash.
The accident triggered a brief explosion and fire in the diesel locomotive, residents said, ripped the wall off the side of the cab and damaged seven of the freight train's coal cars -- showering coal over the tracks.
Service was shut down for most of the day between Wilmington, Del., and Baltimore -- one of the federal rail passenger agency's most heavily traveled stretches of track.
At 3:45 p.m., nearly 12 hours after the crash, one of three tracks at the site was opened and train service resumed.
An Amtrak spokesman said trains were running up to 30 minutes behind schedule last night, and said a second track likely would be opened sometime this morning.
A state police helicopter took the engineer, Ray Francis Hunsberger, 38, of Glenolden, Pa., and the conductor, Ronald Edward Hairston, 48, of Collegeville, Pa., to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore. Both were listed in serious but stable condition yesterday afternoon.
Sue S. Martin, a spokesman for Amtrak at the scene, said Mr. Hunsberger had a broken jaw and facial cuts while Mr. Hairston was severely bruised.
Investigators said they did not know how fast the Amtrak locomotives were traveling along the approach to the Gunpowder Falls bridge, where the speed limit is 80 mph for that type of train.