No technology can replace an alert crew

March 07, 1996|By Mark Reutter

WASHINGTON -- There's an old Navy saying that you can make a piece of equipment sailor-resistant, but you can't make it sailor-proof. It's the lesson of the February 16 train crash in Silver Spring that killed 11 people.

CSX Transportation Inc., which operates MARC commuter trains between Baltimore's Camden Station and Washington and between Washington and Martinsburg, West Virginia, was hammered by critics last week before a legislative committee in Annapolis. Hearings on rail safety -- sparked by a commuter-train collision in New Jersey that killed three people last month as well as several freight-train accidents -- are under way in Congress this week.

Contrary to what was being implied by some critics, there is only one foolproof way to keep a moving structure completely free from harm. That is by not moving at all. On the other hand, 165 years of running railroads has resulted in a methodology that helps make trains the safest form of transportation.

Safety on MARC trains is based on two overlapping factors. The first is a wayside signal system that divides track lengths into ''blocks.'' Each block signal directs a train's movements and provides an advance warning of any train occupying a track segment one or more blocks ahead. The second factor is a crew of professionals headed by an engineer who obeys the signal instructions as prescribed by the railway bible known as the ''book of rules.''

So far, the evidence suggests that the engineer of MARC Train 286 had a ''yellow-restrictive'' signal as he approached the Kensington station. Rather than slow for the next signal at Georgetown Junction, Train 286 accelerated to 63 miles an hour before coming upon the red signal right before the junction. By then it was too late, and the train slammed into the lead engine of Amtrak's ''Capitol Limited,'' which was switching to another track.

Most striking about the circumstances of the signaling maneuver was its strictly routine nature. Georgetown Junction is a major crossover point. Trains frequently switch there. Stopping for an opposing train is exactly what a train crew should expect, especially when their train is running against the flow of traffic during the evening rush hour.

But the seeds of confusion have been sown by suggestions that an ''automatic train stop'' could have averted the disaster. Although such a system was in place years ago when the line was owned by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, it would not have made any difference.

An automatic stop is activated when a train passes though a restrictive signal. If the engineer does not brake his train, a warning bell is set off, followed by an application of brakes. In the case of Train 286, the engineer had already set the brakes in order to stop at the Kensington station. This would have satisfied the train stop and there would have been no further ''automatic'' indication of danger if an operator chose to exceed 30 mph -- in violation of the rules book -- until reaching the red signal at Georgetown Junction.

In statements to the Maryland legislature, officials of the unions representing the train crews have countered that signals on the CSX line often did not work properly. An old logbook containing crew complaints of alleged signal problems is missing from the railroad's crew room in Baltimore, the railroad has acknowledged.

Much has been made of the missing log, but its relevance to the crash -- or to the general issue of safety on CSX -- is open to question. None of the complaints in the log pertain to the signals related to the February 16 collision.

Signal malfunctions

What's more, a ''malfunctioning'' signal does not mean that safety is compromised. To the contrary, railway signals are engineered to display a red signal -- known in the trade as a ''false stop'' -- or not to light up at all in case of a malfunction. In either event, the crew is governed by the most restrictive rules, usually to halt immediately. As part of the drill, the crew is required to contact the dispatcher, via the cab radio, for authority to proceed.

The relative insignificance of malfunctioning signals is borne out by statistics from the Federal Railroad Administration. In its latest accident report, for 1994, the agency reports that signal and communication failures resulted in 6 collisions and 13 derailments nationwide. Only one of these accidents was directly caused by a block signal displaying a ''false green.'' On the other hand, ''human factors in train operations'' accounted for 195 collisions and 462 derailments.

That said, there is an issue that should be explored by state and federal officials. In 1993, CSX completed the re-signing of 85 miles of the division to increase the flow of traffic by making both main tracks bi-directional.

As part of the overhaul, a signal between the Kensington station and Georgetown Junction was eliminated. MARC officials were aware of this change, which was part of a consultant's review, but did not consider the matter of enough importance to demand re-installation of the signal. Nor, apparently, did the union complain.

Adding extra signals at important switching points may be of value in increasing the degree of safety on MARC and several other commuter lines around the country. But as with so many other safety issues involving planes and ships as well as trains, high-tech equipment, though helpful, is never a substitute for an alert and responsive crew.

Mark Reutter, a former Sun reporter, is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, specializing in rail transportation.

Pub Date: 3/07/96

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