Speed limit mistakenly lifted before derailment

At 60 mph, train exceeded earlier 25 mph restriction

August 23, 2002|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

A rail supervisor mistakenly lifted a 25 mph speed limit on a stretch of track in Kensington days before an Amtrak train, traveling at 60 mph, derailed last month in the same area, according to a report released yesterday by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The speed restrictions had been put in place by track owner CSX on July 22 because of unfinished track repairs. But thinking the work had been completed, the supervisor lifted the speed limit several days later. When the Capitol Limited, pulling 13 passenger cars from Chicago to Washington, reached that stretch of track July 29, it should have been following the limit, according to the NTSB report.

Yesterday's update offers new clues into the accident, which injured 101 of the 176 people on board minutes before they would have reached their destination. Until now, the investigation appeared to focus on heat-related rail problems. The train's engineer reported seeing misshapen rail before the derailment, and investigators later discovered small heat kinks in nearby sections of track.

"Whether lifting the slow order, the summer heat or any other factor or combination of factors contributed to [the derailment] is obviously part of the continuing investigation," said CSX spokesman Gary Sease. He declined to comment on whether the track supervisor had been disciplined.

The NTSB is investigating for other possible causes, said spokeswoman Lauren Peduzzi.

"It's premature at this point in the investigation to point to that or any one factor as the cause for the derailment," she said.

Amtrak officials declined to comment on the NTSB report yesterday.

On July 22, CSX crews had been using a mechanical device to align the tracks and keep the track bed compacted and firm so it would hold the rails in place. But their mechanical "tamper" broke, and they were forced to use hydraulic hand-held tampers instead, according to the NTSB.

"Spot surfacing and tamping had been performed, which disturbed the track by breaking the bond between the ties and the ballast," the report said. The repair work was to have been completed using the mechanical tamper, but the job was delayed because of weather and other work. The supervisor thought it had been completed, however, and lifted the 25 mph limit.

Slow orders are either issued to train engineers before departure or by using the track's signaling system, said Warren Flatau, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration. In this case, the NTSB report shows the order to slow down in the area was never issued to the train engineer.

Investigators are looking at whether heat played a role in the warping of the track. Since the July 29 derailment, safety officials have ordered passenger trains to travel slower when heat is excessive, usually by at least 10-mph. Before that, only freight trains were required to slow down during heat waves. But the 25 mph limit was far slower than even heat-related speed restrictions.

In other findings, the NTSB said investigators have discovered no problems with signals or train equipment.

The train engineer has told investigators he saw possible heat warping on the rail and immediately braked. Investigators say he used several braking methods within 15 seconds before applying the emergency brakes, which stopped the train after about 400 feet.

Safety officials have interviewed key crew members from Amtrak and CSX, including the track foreman and inspector. They also are reviewing personnel records and toxicology tests.

Fifteen of the most seriously injured in the July 29 accident - and a majority of the others - said that there were no problems evacuating through the passenger cars through emergency windows and doors, according to the preliminary findings. Peduzzi said the NTSB probably would not issue a final report on the cause of the derailment before next summer.

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