Quick changes on rail cars put off Only levers to open doors will be fixed right away

June 14, 1996|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,SUN STAFF

Despite an urgent request from officials investigating the fatal train crash last winter in Silver Spring, the Federal Railroad Administration has declined to impose several immediate changes on rail cars that would make escape easier in an emergency.

Instead, most of the recommended improvements to emergency exits and signs will be addressed in rules the agency will propose this fall, FRA Administrator Jolene M. Molitoris wrote in a letter released yesterday.

She did agree to one emergency measure recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board on March 12.

On some passenger trains, such as the one involved in the Silver Spring crash, the levers to open doors in an emergency are inside a cabinet that must be opened with a coin or pen. The Federal Railroad Administration said those levers will be changed immediately to make them easier to access.

Passengers who survived the Feb. 16 wreck in Silver Spring told of futile efforts to open jammed doors.

The accident occurred when a Maryland Rail Commuter train from Brunswick to Washington collided with an Amtrak train on the same track.

Nine of the 11 people who died had succumbed to smoke inhalation. Those victims might have survived if they had been able to flee the burning train quickly, investigators have suggested.

Many of the 12 survivors escaped through an opening ripped in the second car, rather than through emergency doors or windows.

After the crash, the NTSB asked federal rail officials to inspect commuter trains nationwide to see if they have:

Easy-to-use emergency levers located next to the doors they open

Doors with windows or panels that can be kicked out if the doors fail to open, and

Signs that can be seen in the dark marking all emergency exits.

If trains lack one or more of those features, federal rail officials should take "appropriate emergency measures," the safety board recommended.

In response, the railroad administration inspected equipment on 16 commuter rail systems across the nation. It discovered that many emergency levers were not located next to doors, few doors have removable windows or panels, and signs marking emergency exits varied widely.

Molitoris wrote that those issues will be addressed in new rules her agency will propose this fall. Her letter did not say why she did not propose quicker action.

An agency spokesman, David A. Bolger, said federal railroad officials do not believe the NTSB recommendations need to be adopted right away.

Four days after the wreck, U.S. transportation officials ordered several actions that they believe went far enough to ensure safety, he said. They required rail lines to inspect emergency exit windows, review signs, submit a safety plan, call out signals, and reduce speeds.

Molitoris' letter said that having removable windows or panels on doors could be unsafe because they might be dislodged by winds or accidentally kicked out by passengers.

NTSB spokesman Pat Cariseo said, "We've received the response and starting today our railroad safety staff will determine if it meets the letter and spirit of our recommendations."

John A. Agro, administrator of the Maryland Mass Transit Administration, was unavailable for comment, a spokesman said.

Pub Date: 6/14/96

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