1st car on Brunswick train is area reserved for brave FATAL COLLISION

February 20, 1996|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Most days, the first car of MARC train 281 is full. But yesterday, only the very brave wandered up to the front of the train, and no one dared sit in the front half of the first car.

The train felt empty, passengers said, and it wasn't just the holiday. A locomotive heading southbound on the same line collided with a Chicago-bound Amtrak train last Friday night in Silver Spring. Eleven people died, including three train employees known to 281 regulars by their smiles, if not their names.

"Give it a week," said Bob Corn-Revere, 41, a lawyer who rides between Point of Rocks, Md., and his Washington office every day. "People will eventually come back to the front car. Just wait till it starts getting crowded in back."

To the passengers of Number 281, MARC's two other lines, Camden and Penn, carry cold, faceless city folks between Baltimore and Washington. But MARC's Brunswick line is full of noisy "party trains" of Washington workers on their way home to Maryland's exurbs and the West Virginia mountains.

"This is the kind of train where you make friends for life," said Dick Strausbaugh, who has been commuting on the train between his three-acre farm in Brunswick and his job at a Silver Spring auto dealership since 1971.

Yesterday, though, three cars' worth of passengers on the 5:30 p.m. train leaving Union Station anxiously held their breath: first, as unidentified, broken equipment was fixed in the rear car, and a little later, when an Amtrak train whistled nearby. The train finally left at 6 p.m.

"That scared me," said a conductor, whose neck had whipped back at the sound of the whistle.

The people on the second and third cars quickly nodded off to sleep. But on the first car, everyone was wide awake; a few stared out the window as the train neared the site of Friday's crash.

Train employees said they were told they would lose their jobs if they talked to the media, but it was hard, one confessed, to mourn co-workers and console passengers at the same time.

Before boarding the train, Sonia Bacu, a health care worker from Garrett Park, approached the conductor.

"Did the short man, with the brown beard, middle 40s, glasses -- you know the one -- did he die?"

The conductor paused a moment, composing himself and said, "Yep. That was him."

Ms. Bacu said later, "There's a lot of loyalty among passengers for the conductors and the engineers." She and four other passengers said they tended to believe that a bad signal, not an engineer's speeding, was responsible for the collision.

Every passenger interviewed said the crash would not keep them from riding the train. Most called the ride the high point of their day, a way to decompress or catch up on work during the trip between urban and rural life.

Being commuters in their towns gives many a certain notoriety. On Friday night, "I got seven calls at my home," said Kurt Schneidmiller, 53, a Gallaudet University administrator. "At school, I had one student, very nervous, peek in the door, to see if I was still there. Everyone was asking, 'Are you still alive?' "

And like many passengers, Mr. Strausbaugh, who grew up on a dairy farm in York County, Pa., says he feel safer on the train than on Interstate 270. His only complaint has been the line's on-time performance, and even that has improved in recent years.

"Being a mechanic, I used to listen to those old, self-propelled cars they had years ago," he said. "And I could get a pretty good estimate of whether I'd get home that night, just by listening to the motor."

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