Commuter rail safety is criticized Federal probe of MARC-Amtrak crash raises questions

A lack of confidence

NTSB investigation ends without finding cause of collision

June 29, 1996|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

ROCKVILLE -- A federal inquiry concluded yesterday without determining the probable cause of the fatal crash of two passenger trains in Silver Spring, but the three-day public hearing succeeded in raising numerous questions about commuter rail safety in Maryland and elsewhere.

All three crew members and eight passengers aboard a Maryland Rail Commuter train died in the fiery, head-on collision with Amtrak's Capitol Limited on Feb. 16. Investigators suspect the MARC engineer failed to heed a signal that, if working properly, should have warned him to slow down.

While that theory drew intense scrutiny, the final day of public fact-finding held by the National Transportation Safety Board continued to raise a broad range of safety concerns. Chief among them is whether Maryland officials are adequately supervising the safety of the state's commuter rail system.

Board Chairman James E. Hall said he had a "lack of confidence" that the state gives adequate oversight. He pointed out that MARC has no safety procedures of its own nor does the agency employ someone to inspect quality or safety of MARC operations.

"We're trying to figure out who is holding up the public trust," Hall said.

State officials explained that while the MARC system is the responsibility of the Maryland Mass Transit Administration, its operation is contracted to Amtrak and freight carrier CSX Transportation, which own the rail lines.

The fatal crash took place on the Brunswick line -- between Washington, D.C., and Western Maryland -- where trains are maintained, operated and dispatched solely by employees of CSX. Hiring someone to oversee CSX safety procedures was seen by state officials as redundant.

"We don't want to replicate what CSX does," MTA Administrator John A. Agro Jr. told the panel.

Agro and a representative of the Federal Transit Administration were asked why taxpayers paid for most of a $15 million replacement of signals on the Brunswick line four years ago that facilitated two-way traffic. Agro said the MTA thought it would make the line safer.

The panelists also questioned why a different state agency, the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, employs railroad inspectors but doesn't discuss safety matters with MARC. The department had nine inspectors in 1989 but has since cut back to three despite a growth in MARC traffic over that period.

Ileana O'Brien, the department's deputy commissioner, said the inspectors have limited authority. They can look only for federal requirements and don't have the power to fine companies when problems are discovered, she said.

Other safety concerns that were raised during the hearings included:

Emergency exits. Crash witnesses saw some victims struggling to open emergency windows. MARC has already pledged to provide more and better-marked emergency openings that are easier to operate.

Safety training. Two veteran CSX conductors told officials they've never been given instructions on passenger evacuation or even tried to use emergency window exits. Representatives of MARC, Amtrak and CSX said they are working on a training film to correct that.

Disaster drills. Montgomery County firefighters had trained for years on how to handle a subway train derailment, but had never considered a MARC emergency.

Automatic train control. MARC engines and cab cars are equipped with devices that could have displayed signal conditions to the engineer and even forced a train exceeding its authorized speed to brake.

But they are useless on CSX lines because the costly trackside equipment needed to run the fail-safe devices was removed 30 years ago. The federal government currently mandates the technology only on high-speed routes, including MARC's Penn line, which runs from Washington to Baltimore and north to Perryville.

The safety board is not expected to release the results of its investigation until late this year or early next year. The agency's report will contain nonbinding recommendations to parties involved in the accident.

Pub Date: 6/29/96

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