U.S. cuts speed on rail lines safety assailed

New speed limits might have prevented Silver Spring accident

Order takes effect today

Rail workers recall defective signals, near-collisions

February 21, 1996|By Peter Jensen and Marcia Myers | Peter Jensen and Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers JoAnna Daemmrich, Jacques Kelly, Joe Mathews and Fred Rasmussen contributed to this article.

Federal railroad authorities yesterday issued an emergency order limiting train speeds beginning today -- a directive that probably would have saved the 11 lives lost in the collision of Amtrak and MARC trains Friday night in Silver Spring.

But 16 railroad workers interviewed by The Sun this week allege that CSX Transportation Inc., the private company that owns and maintains the tracks, has ignored serious safety problems that go beyond the new rules imposed by federal regulators.

The workers assert that a track signal system controlling trains like those involved in the crash is so troublesome that the workers began keeping a log book two years ago to record its failures.

Railroad employees now request work in the freight yards because the signal system makes riding the rails so unsafe, workers say.

They also complain that the Brunswick line involved in the crash lacks a standard safety feature that might have prevented the collision: a train cab signal showing the most recent track signal and the one coming up.

CSX Transportation officials said the workers' allegations were unfounded and claimed the company has a sterling safety record.

Federal crash investigators say the engineer on the MARC commuter train might have forgotten seeing a yellow track signal directing him to proceed slowly after departing the Kensington station that night. He speeded up to 63 mph before braking in a futile attempt to stop the train from colliding with an Amtrak train, federal investigators say.

The order by the Federal Railroad Administration, which went into effect after midnight last night, limits trains to a speed of 30 mph after stopping at a station or after slowing down to less than 10 mph. The train can speed up only after receiving authorization from a green signal.

The requirement applies only to trains that are not equipped with cab signals or do not have automatic train controls.

Federal officials said that MARC could comply with the safety order by using cab signals on its two lines operated by CSX: the Brunswick line from Washington to West Virginia and the Camden line between Baltimore and Washington.

The Amtrak-run MARC trains on the Penn line, which runs from Washington to Baltimore and then north to Perryville, use cab signals.

Grady C. Cothen Jr., the railroad administration's deputy associate administrator for safety standards, said the upgrade would require that miles of track circuits be installed at a cost of millions of dollars. "It would be the logical step," Mr. Cothen said.

A spokeswoman for CSX said: "We are studying the order and we intend to fully comply with its directives. Safety is our No. 1 priority, so we're always seeking ways to make our railway operation safer."

Transportation Secretary Federico F. Pena said the order slowing the trains will cause "some delays" on about 12 rail systems nationwide. Eight other rail systems are not affected by the order because they have cab signals or other adequate train controls.

A Maryland Mass Transit Administration spokesman said last night they couldn't predict how MARC schedules will be affected by the directive, but some delays on the Brunswick and Camden lines seemed inevitable.

Other safety improvements ordered by federal officials:

* Require engineers to call out to another crew member when they see a red or yellow signal.

* Order commuter rail operators such as MARC to make sure all emergency exits are clearly marked and working properly within 60 days.

* Require railroads to submit safety plans within the next 45 days that show what steps they are taking to make passenger service safer.

Federal officials, continuing to investigate the Silver Spring crash and an earlier crash this month in New Jersey, said the mishaps have raised questions about the use of cab cars. The lead car in the MARC train was a cab car, meaning an engineer could run the train from a small compartment at the front, while the train was being pushed by an engine at the rear.

"There are inherent risks in [this arrangement]," Mr. Pena said.

All the people killed in the Silver Spring crash were in the front car of the MARC train, which was destroyed in the collision and subsequent fire. The question investigators are examining is whether passenger trains should instead be pulled by an engine in front, protecting other cars.

Federal investigators are still uncertain why the engineer of the MARC train speeded up after passing a yellow signal that should have slowed him down.

Dr. John E. Smialek, the Maryland medical examiner, said the engineer had no trace of drugs or alcohol in his system. Other crew members had only traces of over-the-counter medications.

The changes ordered by federal regulators will not solve some of the concerns raised in interviews by CSX workers and union officials, most of whom asked not to be named. The workers said they have signed agreements permitting CSX to fire them for publicly criticizing the company -- a claim disputed by CSX.

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