WASHINGTON - In the wake of the Silver Spring train crash that killed 11 people, the National Transportation Safety Board said yesterday that Maryland's MARC commuter cars "pose an unacceptable risk to the public" and urged immediate changes to make escape easier in an emergency.
The safety agency also asked federal regulators to determine if the same "unsafe conditions" exist on other commuter rail lines across the country and to order corrective action immediately. John A. Agro Jr., who heads the Mass Transit Administration, welcomed the safety board's recommendations, saying they "are really confirmation of actions that we outlined" Feb. 21.
At that time, MTA said it would make two of the three modifications recommended yesterday by the board at a cost of $6.5 million on its 110 rail cars.
MARC carries 10,000 people to and from work each day on three commuter lines.
Two lines travel between Baltimore and Washington; the third travels between Martinsburg, W.Va., and Washington.
The Feb. 16 accident occurred on the third line as a train from Brunswick to Washington collided with a Chicago-bound Amtrak train that was on the same track, just beginning to switch to another track.
While the safety board has no enforcement authority, its "urgent" recommendations put pressure on the MTA to complete its modifications quickly.
The moves also pressure the Federal Railroad Administration to inspect other commuter rail lines and move to correct similar problems.
Mr. Agro said officials would look at accelerating their one-year timetable for MARC modifications.
And Jolene M. Molitoris, the head of the FRA, promised, "We would work with the NTSB to get this accomplished."
While the safety board investigation of the MARC collision is continuing, Joseph E. Hall, its chairman, said the board decided to issue its "urgent" recommendation after interviewing MARC passengers who survived the crash.
He described frantic efforts to flee the smoke-filled lead car, including futile efforts to open jammed doors.
Many of the 12 survivors finally escaped through a hole that had been ripped in the second car of the train.
Mr. Hall said nine of the 11 people who died succumbed to smoke inhalation, suggesting that they might have survived had they been able to escape quickly or if rescuers had been able to get into the train quickly.
To aid escape, the board recommended that:
Emergency signs in the cars be improved and be visible in the dark;
The levers to open doors in emergencies be relocated next to the doors and be easily operable;
And doors have panels or windows that can be kicked out in an emergency if the doors jam.
MARC already is already acting on the first two recommendations.
Mr. Agro said yesterday that it would also make the third modification.
In addition, MARC is making all 44 windows on each car emergency exits that can be removed quickly.
Now, only four windows are emergency windows.
Mr. Hall, chairman of the safety board, told a House railroad subcommittee yesterday that the board had made similar recommendations 19 years ago in the wake of a commuter rail accident but that the Federal Railroad Administration had failed to act.
For years, he said, the FRA insisted that federal standards for passenger car construction were unnecessary, a position that the Clinton administration has reversed.
The agency is expected to issue regulations next year.