Rail rule changes relaxed after protests Departure speed raised from 30 mph to 40 mph

March 02, 1996|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- After protests from commuter rail operators, federal regulators have relaxed rules for train operations that were announced in the wake of last month's Amtrak-MARC collision in Silver Spring.

Four days after the crash that killed 11 people, U.S. Transportation Secretary Federico F. Pena issued emergency regulations. The rules required, he said, that engineers limit speed to 30 mph after a station stop until the next signal and be prepared to stop at that signal.

The Feb. 16 collision occurred as the MARC train, traveling 63 mph after leaving the Kensington station, failed to stop at the next signal and hit an Amtrak train that was beginning to shift to another track. Just before the Kensington stop, the MARC train had passed a signal that should have told it to slow to 30 mph.

After Mr. Pena's announcement, commuter rail lines complained that the new rule could disrupt their schedules. And embarrassed federal officials acknowledged that, despite what Mr. Pena had said, the new order did not require a 30-mph limit -- only that the engineer be able to stop at the next signal.

So, on Thursday, the Federal Railroad Administration made a couple of changes. It set the station departure speed at 40 mph, unless other rules make it lower. And it said the new limit would apply only if the next signal is at a switching or control point, such as where the fatal crash occurred.

Had the rule been in effect Feb. 16, officials have said, it probably would have prevented the MARC-Amtrak collision.

A MARC spokesman said the 30-mph limit was imposed on the Brunswick and Camden lines, which are operated by CSX Transportation train crews, and had resulted initially only in "minimal delays." CSX is still trying to determine the effect of the revised rules, which become effective Monday, said Anthony Brown, the spokesman. The new rules do not apply to MARC's Penn line, operated by Amtrak on its Northeast corridor, because automatic safety features are in use on that line.

CSX for the first time acknowledged the existence of a log book in which train crews had recorded operating problems, including problems with signals. Rail union officials told a Maryland legislative committee Tuesday that the book had disappeared recently.

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