Collision occurs despite improved safety measures

April 13, 1991|By Joel McCord

In the aftermath of the fatal train crash at Chase in January 1987, rail safety advocates and the families of the victims lobbied for mandatory random drug testing for train engineers. They got it.

They wanted the Federal Railroad Administration to have greater control over rail companies and individual employees. They got that, too.

And they wanted freight trains off the Amtrak's busy Northeast corridor. They almost got that.

But crashes still happen, as the collision of four Amtrak locomotives and a Conrail freight train yesterday showed. The collision occurred within yards of the 1987 crash.

"There are some things that are better," said Roger Horn, the Johns Hopkins University mathematics professor whose 16-year-old daughter, Ceres, died in the 1987 crash. "But we still had two trains in the same place at the same time, and that's just not supposed to happen."

Dr. Horn and Arthur Johnson, whose daughter Christi, 20, also was killed, formed Safe Travel America to lobby for rail safety measures. Although they acknowledged that many safety measures have been implemented since the 1987 accident at Chase, they also complained that changes have come slowly.

"The frequency of accidents that can be attributed to human error is still quite high," Mr. Johnson said in a telephone interview. "There's no reason that can't be reduced."

He complained, for example, that the drug testing program ordered by then-Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Hanford Dole does not include testing for alcohol abuse, nor is it a requirement codified in rail safety legislation. In addition, Congress required licensing of train engineers in 1988, but the Department of Transportation has yet to implement the requirements because of persistent disagreements over the rules with unions and railway companies.

After the 1987 crash, Ricky L. Gates, the Conrail engineer who barreled through several warning signals into the path of an oncoming Amtrak passenger train, admitted that he and Edward Cromwell, his brakeman, were smoking marijuana moments before the crash.

Gates pleaded guilty in 1988 to vehicular manslaughter in Baltimore County Circuit Court and was ordered to serve the maximum five-year sentence. He was paroled two years later to begin a three-year federal sentence for lying to a federal investigator about the drug use.

A warning whistle that might have told Gates he had ignored a signal had been disabled. And the engine he was operating was not equipped with "automatic train control," a system that stops a train if an engineer does not respond properly to changes in safety signals.

Since then, Conrail trains operating on the Northeast corridor have been equipped with the devices. Amtrak engines already had them at the time of 1987 crash. Amtrak locomotives in yesterday's accident were equipped with them. Part of the investigation of yesterday's crash will focus on whether the Amtrak engine's system was working, said Edward R. English, director of the Office of Safety Enforcement for the Federal Railroad Administration.

The federal Rail Safety Act of 1988, generated by the 1987 crash, gave the FRA the authority to license engineers and discipline individuals who violate safety regulations.

But the licensing requirements still have not been issued.

Because of resistance from unions, Dr. Horn complained, "It takes forever to write a rule that might affect someone's job."

In response to a recommendation by the National Transportation Safety Board, Amtrak has limited freight train traffic on the corridor to hours when little or no passenger trains are operating.

Yesterday's crash occurred at such a time.

"They promised us four years ago that [freight trains on the passenger tracks] would be phased out, but they didn't do it," Dr. Horn said.

Mr. English said there was "a lot of discussion about making the corridor freight free" in the months after the 1987 wreck, "but it never came about" even though freight traffic has been greatly reduced since then.

Patrick Jeffery, an Amtrak spokesman, said the national passenger railroad has offered freight haulers "financial incentives" to stay off their tracks during daylight hours and has ordered that freight trains that do operate on passenger tracks during those hours travel no faster than 30 miles an hour.

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