Train wreck inquiry narrows Investigators' focus on safety issues could have long-term effect

February 24, 1996|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

One week after the fatal collision between MARC and Amtrak trains in Silver Spring, federal investigators have raised a dozen safety issues that could have long-term repercussions for rail travel.

Officials with the National Transportation Safety Board said yesterday their inquiry into the crash that killed 11 people on the Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) train will take months. But with on-scene work finished, they have begun to more narrowly define their areas of concern.

"We haven't reached any conclusions yet, but we're concentrating on some specific safety issues," said Patrick F. Cariseo, an NTSB spokesman.

Those issues are:

* Track signals. Investigators are examining placement and reliability. A team of NTSB officials is scheduled to fly to Jacksonville, Fla., next week to interview CSX Transportation dispatchers, review voice tapes and examine signal test records.

When CSX Transportation installed new signals three years ago on the Brunswick line, where the crash occurred, a signal nearer the crash site was not replaced. In interviews with The Sun, CSX employees have also raised questions about the system's reliability -- even though NTSB officials found no problems with equipment at the scene.

"We'll be looking through [CSX] files to see if there are records of train crew complaints on signal systems," Mr. Cariseo said.

* Push-pull commuter trains. The victims in the crash were occupying a cab car in the front of the train where an engineer controlled a locomotive pushing from the rear. That design aids commuter schedules because engines never have to be repositioned, but the system made forward passengers more vulnerable than if they had been behind an engine.

* Locomotive fuel tanks. Diesel fuel leaking from the lead Amtrak engine fueled a fire that killed most of the victims. Crash-resistant shielded tanks might have made a difference in the outcome.

* Passenger car safety standards. Victims reportedly had difficulty getting out of the burning MARC car, a fact that has caused the Maryland Mass Transit Administration to pledge a $6.5 million upgrade of MARC car emergency window exits and doors.

* Crew fatigue and distraction. The MARC engineer may have mistaken a caution signal or been distracted when he stopped the train at the Kensington station minutes before the crash.

* "Positive train separation." Federal authorities have already pointed to the accident as an argument for this high-tech system to control trains. The industry is testing an experimental version that uses computers and digital data technology to prevent such accidents.

An older technology, Automatic Train Control, might also have prevented the accident. But while the MARC car had the necessary equipment, the CSX track lacked the capability to use it.

The accident has drawn considerable attention from regulators and the transportation industry. Not only was it the worst in several years, but it happened on the edge of the nation's capital.

After meeting with federal regulators Thursday, railroad executives announced plans to improve freight train braking systems. The U.S. Senate's Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee has scheduled a hearing Tuesday on freight and commuter safety.

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