Despite Changes, a Train Wreck Sequel

April 21, 1991|By DOUG BIRCH

Sifting the facts of the recent collision between four Amtrak locomotives and a Conrail coal train near Chase, the one clear lesson is that those who ignore the past aren't the only ones condemned to repeat it.

In the April 12 collision, the Amtrak locomotives rammed the center of a 125-car Conrail freight train. It occurred perhaps 300 feet from the site of the 1987 wreck of Amtrak's Newport News-to-Boston Colonial -- which remains the worst accident in Amtrak's history.

Sixteen people died and another 175 were hurt four years ago after the desperately-braking Colonial, pulling 12 passenger cars more than 100 miles per hour, rammed three Conrail freight engines in a shower of shredded metal and burning diesel oil.

Although there were no deaths and far fewer injuries April 12, both accidents bear striking similarities. Both involved Conrail and Amtrak at a switch just south of the Gunpowder River bridge. In both cases, critical safety equipment was not operating properly -- warning whistles and lights on the Conrail -- engines in 1987, the brakes on the Amtrak locomotives April 12. In both accidents, the initial evidence pointed to human error as the primary cause.

The 1987 crash triggered a public outcry and a series of reforms by Amtrak, and it helped pressure Congress to pass drug testing legislation for transportation workers and others.

But in what might seem like a perverse twist, the evidence so far suggests that those changes had little, if any, effect on what residents of the communities near the site ironically dubbed "Chase II, The Sequel."

And the one initiative that clearly would have prevented the accident -- the total separation of freight and passenger train operations in the Chase area -- was not done, probably because of the massive expense involved.

One Amtrak official has called the accident "a bizarre coincidence." Dr. Roger A. Horn, a Johns Hopkins University professor whose daughter was killed in the 1987 Colonial wreck, said pre-trip checkouts of Amtrak and Conrail equipment should be improved, but admits that improving safety procedures has little impact if no one follows them.

Other railroad experts said Chase II seemed designed to demonstrate that if something can go wrong, it will.

The following fixes seemed to have little effect:

* After the Colonial wreck, the U.S. Department of Transportation ordered automatic braking systems installed on all freight and commuter equipment operating in the Northeast corridor.

Such a system, which automatically applies the brakes on a train if there is a closed switch ahead, probably would have prevented the 1987 crash by keeping the Conrail train out of the Colonial's path. And the Conrail train involved in Chase II had such a system.

But the freight had the right of way, and was halfway through a switch in the path of the Amtrak locomotives when the accident occurred.

The Amtrak equipment -- a diesel engine towing three non-operating or "dead in tow" electric locomotives -- had an automatic braking system, too. All Amtrak passenger locomotives had them in 1987. Judging from the shriek of brakes area residents heard long before the April 12 crash, that system worked.

But evidence also suggests that when the system engaged, there was not enough compressed air left in the reservoir tanks of the three electric locomotives to power their brakes.

Someone at the Ivy City Yard near Union Station in Washington, the NTSB said, apparently forgot to twist three levers -- one on each of the electric locomotives -- that would have permitted the operating diesel to pump needed air into those reservoir tanks.

Instead, each time the locomotives slowed or stopped after leaving Ivy City, air slowly bled from the brake systems.

By the time the Amtrak train tried to stop for a red signal south of Chase, investigators suggest, only the diesel's brakes worked. And that was simply not enough to stop the massive weight -- perhaps 600 tons -- of the electric engines it was towing.

* After the Colonial, Amtrak imposed a 30 mph speed limit on all freight traffic in the Northeast corridor between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.

Chase II occurred at 3:09 a.m., and investigators say that so far it looks as though speed did not contribute to the crash.

* After the Colonial, Amtrak ordered that all trains have a working radio on the lead locomotive of any train leaving a Northeast corridor station. In 1987, the engineer of the Colonial, who died after he jumped from the cab at more than 100 mph, had just 16 seconds warning before his locomotive hit the Conrail engines.

The Chase II Amtrak locomotive had plenty of warning and a radio, but it proved useless in avoiding the collision.

A recording of the radio conversation between the dispatcher and the Amtrak crew shows they radioed at 3:07:34 a.m. that "Amtrak 390 is in a slide. Don't think we're going to make the stop signal. Emergency."

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