Changes in MARC operation revealed State plans emphasis on safety, training in wake of fatal crash

July 03, 1996|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

Reacting to criticism of the state's lax safety oversight by federal investigators probing the fatal train crash in Silver Spring, the head of the Mass Transit Administration yesterday unveiled plans to improve his agency's supervision of MARC operations.

"Given our better understanding of the issue, we feel we need to take this whole issue of safety and training to a higher level," MTA Administrator John A. Agro Jr. said.

The Feb. 16 collision between an eastbound Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) train and the westbound Amtrak Capitol Limited resulted in the death of 11 people. While MARC is a state enterprise, its trains are run by Amtrak or CSX Transportation. CSX was responsible for the MARC train involved in the accident.

In hearings into the incident conducted last week in Rockville by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), one theme emerged repeatedly: MTA leaves most matters of safety to its two contractors.

In particular, NTSB representatives questioned whether that was appropriate with CSX, a freight carrier that staffs just two passenger lines nationwide: between Washington and Western Maryland on MARC's Brunswick line, where the accident took place, and between Baltimore and Washington on MARC's Camden line.

CSX provides no special training for MARC engineers or conductors on how to react in emergencies. During the hearings, veteran CSX employees testified that they had never even tried to open an emergency escape window.

Mr. Agro said MTA would assemble a task force to develop a safety training program for all MARC employees. The committee, which will include a rail safety consultant, is expected to report its findings to the agency in 60 days.

A spokeswoman for CSX Transportation said the company has agreed to participate in that effort. The NTSB hearings illuminated the need for better instruction on emergency procedures, said Kathleen Burns, the company's spokeswoman.

"We need to do a more thorough job in the emergency preparedness area," Burns said.

Other steps announced yesterday by the MTA include:

A training regime for firefighters and other emergency workers to make them familiar with MARC equipment. Montgomery County firefighters had difficulty gaining access to the crash, in part because they never had been exposed to MARC cars.

Assigning MTA employees to more closely oversee the safety of MARC operations. The agency's safety office no longer will make recommendations only when MARC experiences an accident, Mr. Agro said.

Requesting an annual safety audit of MARC equipment and procedures by the NTSB. A spokesman for the federal agency said that while that was not a standard practice, he expected the NTSB board would agree to the MTA's proposal.

"We'd be glad to work with them," said Patrick F. Cariseo, the NTSB spokesman.

Taking a more active role in future MARC construction projects such as the $15 million upgrade of the signal system on the Brunswick line in 1992 and 1993. While taxpayers paid for most of that, the MTA had no say in the system's redesign, which was handled entirely by CSX and may have been a factor in the crash.

MARC engineer Richard Orr passed through a signal that should have warned him to slow down before he crashed into the Amtrak train.

The old system would have given him two warnings, but the second signal at Kensington Station was removed in the upgrade, witnesses at the NTSB hearing said.

Mr. Agro said the safety measures are not a mere reaction to the adverse publicity resulting from the NTSB hearings.

There simply was no reason not to make changes now, the administrator said, rather than wait for federal investigators to make recommendations that aren't expected until late this year or early next year.

"We're doing the right thing for the right reasons," he said. "These things need to happen notwithstanding the recommendations of the NTSB."

MTA officials declined to estimate the cost of the safety improvements.

However, Mr. Agro said any new cost will have to be offset by spending cuts because he intends to keep the pledge he made this year, when MARC fares were raised, to not increase fares again for at least three years.

MARC is negotiating with CSX on a five-year contract to continue running commuter trains on the Brunswick and Camden lines. Their last contract expired in October.

Pub Date: 7/03/96

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