JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- When the MARC commuter train slammed into Amtrak's Capitol Limited in a deadly spiral of fire and twisted steel, a dispatcher some 800 miles to the south witnessed the disaster in an antiseptic, futuristic fashion.
Inside the operations center of CSX Transportation Inc., the dispatcher, like dozens of others in this large, circular and windowless room, wore a headset and sat behind two computer terminals, monitoring the movement of Baltimore-area trains on a 9-foot-tall screen, a multicolored patchwork of lines and numbers encircling the room.
Throughout the ordeal, workers said, there was no commotion in the dimly lighted operations center, only the clicking of computer keys and the muffled voices of the dispatchers.
But the calm, deliberate demeanor soon left the Baltimore area's dispatcher who was tracking Train 286 and the Amtrak train to which it had collided.
"He was very, very upset," recalled one dispatcher. "He had tears in his eyes when he found out people were killed."
The dispatcher asked to be relieved from his 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift, and his wife took him home. He has not returned.
"He's going to be off for a while," said a co-worker.
All the CSX engineers and dispatchers interviewed asked for anonymity, saying they were afraid they'd lose their jobs if they talked to a reporter. CSX has denied this would happen.
CSX officials refused to discuss the accident, its dispatch and signaling system, or the operations center, a bunkerlike building in a residential area of Jacksonville. The company did provide a short video on the center and some brochures.
The federal investigation into the Feb. 16 accident that killed 11 passengers and crewmen aboard Maryland Rail Commuter Train 286 has centered on the possibility of error by the engineer aboard the train, Richard Orr, 43, of Glen Burnie. Investigators are trying to determine whether he may have missed or forgot a yellow signal just before the Kensington station that would have warned him not to exceed 30 mph after leaving the station.
After the station, Mr. Orr accelerated to 63 mph before seeing the next signal, which was red, hitting his brakes and plowing into the Amtrak train at 40 mph, federal investigators said. He was killed in the crash.
But officials at the National Transportation Safety Board also are looking at the possibility that the signal before the Kensington station gave Mr. Orr an all-clear sign. They are collecting records from CSX and plan to visit the operations center this week to determine whether there was an error from either computers or dispatchers in Jacksonville, or with the trackside signal in Maryland.
"The signals and the placement of them is part of the investigation," said NTSB spokesman Pat Cariseo. "We have retrieved information from the signal recorders. It's under analysis."
At the operations center, electrical signals are received from distant tracks to indicate train locations. Dispatchers can see on the 9-foot-tall screen and on their workstation computer screens the signals that indicate each train's position on the tracks they're responsible for.
The computers can send instructions automatically to the train, or the dispatcher can override the computer and do it manually. These instructions tell the train engineer at the other end whether clear track lies ahead, or whether another train is on the same track. The dispatchers also are able to stay in touch with train crews by radio.
The operations center can monitor up to 1,300 trains a day on 19,000 miles of track that stretch from Canada to Florida and east from the Mississippi, taking in 20 states. About 100 of those trains are passenger or commuter lines.
The signaling system has been based in Jacksonville since 1989, when CSX consolidated 33 dispatcher locations scattered throughout the country into this 150-foot-diameter operations center. The move reduced an estimated 600 dispatchers to the current 300.
"Properly planned and executed, the center would increase efficiency, reduce operating expenses and eliminate outdated dispatching equipment in the field," according to a CSX brochure.
But some engineers in the Maryland area complain that the signal system in Florida is less reliable than local dispatchers were.
One freight engineer said that three times in the past year, his train nearly collided with a MARC train after he received the wrong signal. The engineers saw each other and avoided the accident, he said.
Jacksonville dispatchers, however, said that when the computers are operating normally, such a scenario is highly unlikely.
The computerized system "flags" errors and prevents a dispatcher from putting two trains on a collision course, said one dispatcher with more than 20 years' experience.