Engineer says he saw flaw in track

NTSB investigating report of buckled rail in Amtrak derailment

April 20, 2002|By Roger Roy and Jim Stratton | Roger Roy and Jim Stratton,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Moments before the passenger cars of an Amtrak Auto Train jumped the tracks, the engineer hit the emergency brake because he saw a buckled rail in the track ahead, federal investigators said yesterday.

Four passengers died and 133 were injured when the northbound train derailed near Crescent City, Fla., an hour after leaving Sanford on Thursday afternoon. Twenty-one rail cars - including 14 of the train's 73-ton Superliner passenger cars - left the tracks, many crashing onto their sides.

The train's engineer thought he saw a "buckle" in the track as the train entered a gentle left-hand curve, said George Black, an investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, "and he reacted to that by throwing the emergency brake."

Some survivors returned yesterday to the site of the deadly crash.

The shaken survivors, who spent Thursday night at a hotel in Orlando, watched as work crews cleared shattered trees and brush flattened by the wreck. Several of the men and women said they had returned to the scene as a way of trying to cope with the crash.

They were escorted by somber National Transportation Safety Board officials and Florida Highway Patrol troopers, who held back throngs of onlookers stopped alongside the highway.

Some of the survivors had used cell phones to make desperate calls to 911, helping spark the rescue effort that involved emergency crews from half a dozen counties.

"I'm in one car, and I see at least 10 cars that are toppled like, like Tinker Toys," one woman caller told a 911 operator. "In the car I was in, there was a man with his head split open, a woman with a broken arm, there was a couple of elderly people who were pinned under the seat."

Although relatives of the dead had been notified, the highway patrol refused to identify the victims, describing them only as two men, 67 and 75, and two women. They included a married couple.

Three of the four had been thrown from the shattered train, investigators said, and their bodies were mangled, leading to early erroneous estimates that six people had been killed.

Four people remained in serious or critical condition at various hospitals last night. An additional 29 were in fair condition or better, hospital officials said, describing most of the injuries as cuts, fractures and abrasions.

The NTSB and officials for CSX Corp., which owns the track, said investigators had not determined whether there was a flaw in the track, which might include what rail workers call a "sun kink" caused by high temperatures.

But there have been problems with buckling of the type of rail used on the CSX track.

And in 2000, the Federal Railroad Administration conducted an extensive audit of CSX rails after track problems led to a series of derailments, including one in the Sanford area blamed on buckled track.

The federal agency concluded that CSX "failed to take the proper remedial action" to fix the track and noted a "pressing need" for better track maintenance. A CSX spokesman said yesterday that the railroad has improved its track maintenance since the audit.

Investigators said the Auto Train, which carried a "black box" like that on an airplane, was traveling 56 mph - below the 60 mph speed limit - when it derailed. Blood and urine samples were taken from the train's crew to test for drugs or alcohol, but the results were not yet available, Black said.

The rails where the crash occurred were believed to be "relatively new," the NTSB said.

Like most rail used for passenger service in the United States, the sections of the steel track where the Auto Train derailed are welded, rather than bolted together, as was the more common practice years ago.

Welded rail is stronger, gives a smoother ride and is easier to maintain.

But because welding essentially makes each rail a solid piece of steel many miles long, the rails are more susceptible to temperature changes, which cause metal to expand and contract. That's why welded track can sometimes kink, triggering a derailment.

A 2-year-old U.S. Department of Transportation analysis concluded that temperature-induced buckling in welded track is "a well-known risk."

The problem is especially pronounced in curves - like the gentle three-degree curve the Auto Train entered Thursday as it derailed. As temperatures rise, the rail expands and stretches, sometimes creating a "sun kink." If the spikes and anchors that bind the rail to the wooden ties give, the rails can buckle and shift several inches, which can be enough to derail a train.

Because of the risk of heat-induced buckling, railroads step up inspections when temperatures rise above 90 degrees. On Thursday, temperatures in the area reached the mid-80s. Black said the temperature was 81 at the time of the crash.

Roger Roy and Jim Stratton are reporters for The Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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