NTSB investigates safety of U.S. rail system Placement of engines in commuter trains probed after Silver Spring crash

February 19, 1996|By Marego Athans and Joanna Daemmrich | Marego Athans and Joanna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Scott Wilson contributed to this article.

Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board are examining the safety of a national commuter rail system that exposes commuters to oncoming engines with fuel tanks that could explode in a collision. Also being questioned is whether an old engine at the front of the Amtrak train that crashed in Silver Spring Friday might have been more likely to ignite than a newer one positioned just behind it.

Eleven people, all passengers on the first car of the commuter train, died in the wreck, many of them badly burned. The Maryland Railroad Commuter (MARC) train was covered with fuel that spilled from the fuel tank of the older engine and ignited, investigators said.

"Had they had the newer engines on both the front end and the back, I don't know if [the victims] would have survived anyway, but they wouldn't have burned," said Lawrence M. Mann, a railroad safety attorney who works with unions and helped write the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970.

"Older engines are more vulnerable to rupture because of the location and construction of the fuel tanks," Mr. Mann said. "They were just more vulnerable to crash."

Both types of engines meet federal guidelines, but the newer one is more compartmentalized, less exposed and has a much stronger steel container to protect the gasoline chamber.

Five years ago, Amtrak began phasing out the old locomotives -- General Motors engines that the railroad had been purchasing since the 1970s -- in favor of the new ones.

The new General Electric engines cost $2 million apiece.

"The new tanks are better protected," said John Goglia, the National Transportation Safety Board member in charge of the investigation.

But Mr. Goglia said the NTSB has no policy favoring one type of tank over the other.

The wreck, which left 26 people injured, is also bringing scrutiny to a rail system that lets freight and long-haul trains carry their engines and fuel in the front, and commuter trains to lead their trains with passenger cars.

Most commuter trains operate on a "push-pull" system, with an engine that can be in the front or the back, depending on the train's direction.

This system avoids the cost and complication of turning the trains around.

"This is one of the major hazards in commuter-type service," Mr. Mann said.

"If you look at the scene of the accident, these cars are just totally unprotected."

The configuration has been a major topic of concern for years among rail workers and unions who advocate scrapping the method.

But railroad companies have been reluctant to do so because of the time and cost involved in having larger crews unhook and move the engines.

"The MARC train in this case had three cars. How much time could it have taken to move the engine to the front?" Mr. Mann said.

"They don't want to spend the money for the crew members."

The railroad industry's work force has dropped sharply in the past 10 years, from about 700,000 to 200,000, he said.

Patrick J. Scott, system manager for train operations with Amtrak in Philadelphia, would not comment on the safety of the commuter system, but said that Amtrak's long-haul passenger trains are buffered by the engine in the front.

Mr. Scott would not say whether the crash was more likely to cause an explosion and fire because the older engine was in front of the newer one, deferring the question to federal investigators.

"Every aspect of it will be deeply dug into," he said.

John F. Fitzpatrick, spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, acknowledged that the the newer fuel tanks are less exposed and more centered on the engine, but would not call them safer.

"There are thousands of trains every day that rely on that system and they're operating safely and arriving safely," he said. "But we have to look at the technology we have today and see how we can use technology to make a safe system even safer."

MARC schedule

Service will resume on the Brunswick and other Maryland Commuter Rail lines today, but they will be a holiday schedule because of President's Day. Normal daily MARC commuter service will resume Tuesday. Call 1-800-325-RAIL for MARC schedule information.

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