Collision in Silver Spring MARC-Amtrak tragedy: This fatal and fiery accident must spur changes.

February 20, 1996

FIRST CAME SHOCK: News on a snowy Friday night that a passenger train had become a fireball in a collision in Silver Spring. Then sorrow: Details of the victims who perished in that tinderbox, including eight young people striving to remake their lives in a Job Corps program and three railroad veterans with iron-clad work records: Richard Orr of Glen Burnie, James E. Major Jr. of Linthicum and James Quillen of Frederick.

Next comes questions: Why did Maryland Rail Commuter train No. 286, en route to Washington, D.C., from West Virginia, collide with Amtrak's Capitol Limited bound for Chicago? Like the trains themselves, investigators are poised at the junction of two tracks: Was the cause human error or an equipment flaw?

The early reports are raising many red flags in the public's mind, much less among the experts: How could an operator "forget" whether the signal he had seen moments earlier was green or cautionary yellow? Why did CSX Transportation Inc., which operates the commuter system for Maryland, remove a signal nearer the accident scene when it overhauled signalization in that area three years ago? Why would cars that carry passengers not have clearly labeled windows that pop out in emergencies? Some reports had rescue workers hurling rocks at the panels to gain access to frantic passengers trapped inside. Is the "push mode" whereby engines push rather than pull passenger trains to save time and money sufficiently safe, since the lead passenger car is left unprotected by an engine?

While the Federal Railroad Administration reports that rail safety improved markedly last year, the initial follow-up to this accident gives pause: Few of us drive trains, but most of us drive cars and we would not want our lives at an intersection to depend on our memory of the traffic signal a couple miles back the road.

Also, why does CSX require several days to review tapes that might reveal whether the operator acknowledged seeing the final signal? Can space satellites and computers be employed to track train movements more precisely? Just as the train accident that killed 16 passengers and injured 170 in the Baltimore County community of Chase nine years ago prompted changes in the industry -- to curb employee substance abuse, among others -- so, too, should this tragedy on the border of the nation's capital.

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