2 rail workers are suspended pending probe

April 19, 1991|By Doug Birch

Amtrak has suspended without pay two maintenance employees who were assigned to connect the air brakes on a string of four locomotives that slammed broadside into a Conrail coal train near Chase last week, the passenger rail agency said yesterday.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators have said the brake systems on the Amtrak locomotives -- a diesel towing three non-operating electric locomotives from Washington to Philadelphia -- were not properly connected before the crash.

The April 12 accident, which injured two Amtrak crewmen, occurred about 100 yards from the site four years ago of the worst train wreck in Amtrak's history. The 1987 crash killed 16 and injured 175.

R. Clifford Black IV, an Amtrak spokesman, said the two suspended maintenance employees, who work at the Ivy City Yards mechanical shop near Washington's Union Station, will not be permitted back on the job until an internal Amtrak investigation is concluded.

He declined to provide the workers' names, their formal job titles, what work rules they have been charged with violating or other details, saying employee matters are confidential. "That's as far as I can go," he said.

Carl Van Hook, general secretary and treasurer of the American Railroad Supervisors Association, confirmed that his union represents at least one of the suspended workers -- a diesel maintenance supervisor at Ivy City.

The supervisor, he said, was scheduled to testify at a hearing today to help determine whether he violated Amtrak regulations and should be disciplined.

But Mr. Van Hook declined to provide the man's name or comment on the suspension.

"I'm not sure if he would or would not want to release anything about it," he said.

Mr. Black said the two maintenance employees could face dismissal if the investigation finds they were responsible for the crash.

If they are exonerated, they would be reinstated with back pay, Mr. Black said.

The crash occurred at 3:09 a.m. after the Amtrak diesel, towing the three locomotives, approached a switch being crossed by a Conrail freight just south of a bridge over the Gunpowder River.

A tape of the Amtrak crew's conversation with dispatchers showed they tried but failed to stop the huge locomotives -- which weigh up to 200 tons each -- and slid along the track for almost 90 seconds before the collision occurred.

After the crash, investigators found that someone apparently failed to connect the F-40-2PH diesel's operating air compressor to the air supply reservoirs aboard the three E-60 electric locomotives.

Without that connection, the reservoirs would have lost some air pressure every time the locomotives braked, several railroad officials said.

(The two Amtrak crewmen, both injured in the crash, successfully tested the brakes three times before leaving Ivy City, one official said.)

By the time the Amtrak train reached Chase, however, the air reserves of the three locomotives apparently were exhausted and their brakes could not operate.

The diesel's brakes apparently did work, but a veteran railroad employee said that they alone could not have been enough to stop the massive weight of the electric locomotives.

On Tuesday, Amtrak said it found no trace of drugs or alcohol in JTC urine samples provided by the two Amtrak crew members and four Conrail crew members involved in the crash.

The Federal Railroad Administration said yesterday it would delay releasing the results of its own official tests of the crew's blood and urine samples until next week because of questions its investigators have about the way the samples were collected by the Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

"We are seeing a procedural problem with the collection of the specimens," said Claire H. Austin, a spokeswoman for the administration.

She said there was no evidence that there was anything wrong with the samples, but with the center's procedures for gathering and handling them. She declined to elaborate further.

Rochelle Cohen, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, said that as far as she knew, the Railroad Administration had not complained to the Shock Trauma Center.

"In these situations, we do exactly as we are instructed by the federal agency represented," she said.

Mr. Black, the Amtrak spokesman, said his agency had not been notified of any problem with the samples. He said "as far as I know" Amtrak's test results are still considered valid.

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