What did Richard Orr see? Train crash: As investigation unfolds, important changes already taking place.

February 26, 1996

WHAT DID HE SEE and when did he see it? That is the question the National Transportation Safety Board is trying to answer about Richard Orr, the MARC engineer who died in the collision of his commuter train with an Amtrak train Feb. 16 in Silver Spring.

Here are three theories -- and that is all they are -- from people in the industry. They speculated that Mr. Orr:

* Mistook the last signal he saw on a snowy night before he accelerated and met the oncoming Amtrak train.

* Forgot the signal, but sped up because the weather was worsening and the track in front of him would normally be clear. (It was not because the northbound Amtrak train was running late and was briefly using the southbound track to get around a slow-moving freight.)

* Saw a green signal, which turned red after he had passed it. In fact, there is disagreement between rail employees and CSX Transportation, which operates the line for Maryland's Mass Transit Administration, to the extent that such signal problems have recurred.

If a voice recording exists of Mr. Orr calling out the signal and CSX in Jacksonville has turned it over to investigators, the NTSB has not released it. That would seem to provide the most definitive evidence of what Mr. Orr saw.

Transportation Secretary Federico F. Pena issued an emergency order that requires engineers to announce to fellow crew members a yellow or red signal. CSX says it has had such a policy. A CSX employee who called here but declined to identify himself said Mr. Orr liked to talk on the radio and was apt to call out signals. Whether that occurred Feb. 16 is unknown.

Mr. Pena announced that trains leaving stations from now on must travel no faster than 30 mph until the engineer sees a green signal. His added call for inspections of passenger-train emergency exits led Maryland officials to quickly announce a $6.5 million upgrade of emergency exits on all MARC cars. Most of the 11 victims in the Silver Spring crash succumbed not from the impact but from fire and smoke. Whether or not this crash was the proverbial accident waiting to happen, it is certainly one throwing light on changes that must occur on commuter rail networks both in Maryland and nationally.

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