Engineer noticed warped track

Operator was unable to stop Capitol Limited before train derailed

July 31, 2002|By Michael Dresser and Greg Garland | Michael Dresser and Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

KENSINGTON - The engineer operating an Amtrak train that derailed here Monday told investigators that he spotted a misshapen stretch of track 500 to 600 feet ahead of him seconds before the accident that injured 101 people, a top federal safety official said yesterday.

Carol Carmody, vice chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the engineer applied the brakes but could not stop the train - which had been traveling at its legal limit of 60 mph - before reaching the misaligned track.

Six of the train's 13 cars tipped over as it derailed just 15 minutes from its destination at Washington's Union Station. No one was killed, but at least 11 people from the crash site remained in local hospitals last night.

Carmody said investigators still do not know what caused the warping of one rail of the CSX track, which was carrying Amtrak's Capitol Limited from Chicago. Possible factors include the regional heat wave, recent maintenance work on that section of track or problems with the welding of the rails, officials said.

Concern that heat might have caused the accident prompted CSX to announce that as of today it will require Amtrak and commuter trains to slow down to the same speeds as freight trains when a "heat order" is in effect along a route.

Since the mid-1980s, freight trains on CSX tracks have been required to travel 10 mph below the posted maximum speed during a heat order - issued after two days of 90-degree weather or a 40-degree temperature swing. A CSX spokesman said passenger trains had been exempt because they are lighter and shorter than freight trains.

Yesterday, Amtrak and CSX engines arrived to haul away the six damaged passenger cars and four baggage cars that had been righted and replaced on the track. Several of the cars were heavily damaged, with sides scraped and windows shattered.

An Amtrak spokesman said the company would provide bus service between Chicago and Pittsburgh through today but would have its Chicago-to-Washington service restored by tomorrow.

A CSX spokesman, Greg Sease, said that the company expected to reopen the Brunswick line, which runs from Washington to Martinsburg, W.Va., last night and that MARC service could resume as early as this morning.

MARC, however, decided to take a more guarded approach. Suzanne Bond, a spokesman, said the commuter rail line would offer its Brunswick passengers shuttle-bus service again this morning and resume service with westbound trains at 1:45 p.m. today.

Eastbound traffic will resume tomorrow morning.

"It's kind of a narrow window, and we don't want to over-promise our customers," Bond said. She said service on MARC's Penn and Camden lines had not been affected by the accident.

Pete Piringer, a spokesman for the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service, said none of those hospitalized after the crash had life-threatening injuries.

At Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, one patient was in serious condition, one in fair condition and two in good condition. All four patients remaining at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring were in good condition. Three were in fair condition at Prince George's County Hospital.

Yesterday Carmody said the engineer - whom she did not identify - told investigators the misshapen track was out of alignment by about 18 inches.

NTSB investigators found the track was out of alignment by as much as 30 inches. Carmody said they don't know yet whether the derailment itself could have caused the additional misalignment.

The normal speed for a passenger train on the track where the train derailed is 70 mph, but officials said the Capitol Limited was traveling at 60 mph - its legal limit because it was carrying automobiles in one of its baggage cars.

The track had been inspected Sunday, Carmody said. "When a heat order is in place, it requires daily inspections," she said.

No problems were evident during the Sunday inspection nor when a freight train passed over the same section of track 30 to 45 minutes before the Capitol Limited, according to CSX officials.

Carmody said the derailment occurred at a section of track that maintenance crews worked on as recently as Thursday. The track was being "tamped," a routine procedure to keep the track bed compacted and firm so it will hold the rails in place. She said a tamping machine being used by the crews broke down and they completed the work by hand.

"That's the area about where the derailment is," Carmody said. She stopped short, however, of blaming the derailment on either the maintenance work or the heat.

Members of the train's crew were subjected to drug and alcohol tests - a routine step after an accident. Results will not be complete for several more days, officials said.

The temperature of the rail itself was 118 degrees at the time of the derailment, Carmody said.

Robert T. Sullivan, a CSX spokesman, said the policy change on heat alerts did not mean the rail company had reached any conclusion about the cause of the derailment.

"Nobody should read anything into it other than we're trying to do the right thing, the safe thing, for passengers," he said.

Sun staff writer Johnathon E. Briggs contributed to this article.

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