MARC will upgrade exits Easier escape routes from hTC commuter trains will cost $6.5 million

February 22, 1996|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

MARC emergency exits -- criticized for being difficult to use by emergency workers responding to last Friday's train crash in Silver Spring -- will undergo a $6.5 million upgrade as part of the state's plan to improve safety on its commuter rail system.

Maryland officials yesterday announced the renovation of emergency window and door exits on the 110-car Maryland Rail Commuter fleet in the wake of the collision of MARC and Amtrak trains that killed 11 people.

And they said they will seek to have cab signals -- safety devices that force trains to adhere to signals and might have prevented the crash -- running on all commuter lines, a project that could ultimately cost $30 million to $50 million.

"We have an obligation to set a standard higher than the federal government," said MTA Administrator John A. Agro Jr.

"We are very concerned about the welfare of the citizens of the state."

MARC's safety plans come in response to an emergency order signed Tuesday by U.S. Transportation Secretary Federico F. Pena.

The order sets new standards for procedures and equipment used by passenger rail systems nationwide.

As part of its response, MARC will increase the number of window emergency exits from four to all 26 windows on every car.

Officials said they will make windows more visible in the dark and develop simplified instructions on how to open the windows that will be printed on the inside and outside of cars.

The emergency release mechanisms on doors will be modified in 60 of the 110 cars to put a second set of controls closer to the doors.

The remaining 50 vehicles, the oldest in MARC's fleet, already have interior controls in the exit vestibules.

The window replacement is expected to cost $1.5 million and the doors $5 million.

The projects will take about one year to complete, officials said.

Emergency workers in Montgomery County have complained that passengers trapped inside cars had difficulty working emergency window exits.

Onlookers reported seeing people pounding on windows to get them open.

In addition, autopsy results showed that three of the accident victims died of smoke inhalation, which raised the possibility that they were conscious after the crash and might also have encountered problems getting out.

The federal order also requires that commuter trains go no faster than 30 mph after leaving a station until they encounter a clear signal.

Federal crash investigators have speculated that the engineer on the MARC train in last week's crash either failed to notice a yellow signal or perhaps forgot about it after stopping at a station.

CSX Transportation, which operates two of three MARC lines, will begin following the lower speed limit today.

That could result in delays for commuters on the Brunswick line between Washington and Brunswick and the Camden line between Washington and Baltimore, Mr. Agro said.

"CSX does not believe it will have a material effect on meeting their printed schedule," Mr. Agro said.

"We will work closely with them to make sure the schedule is adhered to as closely as possible."

But the potentially most far-reaching improvement would be the use of cab signal technology on the Camden and Brunswick lines.

Commuter trains running on MARC's Penn line from Washington to Perryville already use the devices, which display approaching signals to engineers and force trains to brake when warning signals are ignored.

Mr. Agro said he is scheduled to meet with CSX officials today to explore that possibility.

He acknowledged that a portion of the cost would likely have to be paid by the state even though CSX's freight operations would benefit as well.

"When you have shared benefits, you should have shared costs," Mr. Agro said.

MARC engines and cab cars already have cab signal technology, but the CSX lines lack the expensive wayside equipment needed for them to work.

The idea is not new -- similar systems have been running since the 1920s -- but the federal government requires them only for high-speed service such as Amtrak's Northeast corridor.

The fact that the MTA can do little more than seek CSX cooperation for such a project demonstrates the disadvantages the state agency faces in dealing with the Florida-based freight hauler.

MARC has just 26 employees and does little more than oversee contracts with CSX and Amtrak, sell tickets and handle customer relations.

For CSX, passenger travel is a small fraction of its business.

"It would be easy to say the contract is one-sided," said Mr. Agro, who is currently negotiating a new contract with CSX.

"But then if it weren't for CSX, we wouldn't have a commuter railroad."

Gary T. Sease, a spokesman for CSX Transportation, declined to comment on the MARC safety program.

The MTA has not budgeted the $6.5 million needed for the window and door improvements, but Gov. Parris N. Glendening has promised to seek the money through a supplemental budget request to the legislature.

Del. Peter Franchot, a Democrat whose Montgomery County district includes the crash site, said the General Assembly should have no problem with that.

"I think this will be received warmly by the fiscal leaders," said Mr. Franchot, a House appropriations committee member.

"We're seeing swift action by both the White House and the governor, and both should be praised."

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