Track conditions on a CSX Transportation railroad line appear to be the focus of a federal investigation into the train derailment that killed two women in Ellicott City last month.
A preliminary report released by the National Transportation Safety Board Wednesday named the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes, a union whose members handle track maintenance, as one of the parties to the investigation. Other unions, such as those that represent engineers and other crew members, were not named as participants in the probe.
An NTSB spokesman cautioned about reading anything into the inclusion of the track workers' union as a party. But people familiar with board procedures said it was a sign of the probe's direction.
Russ Quimby, a former NTSB investigator who is now a railroad safety consultant in Omaha, said the inclusion of the union was a strong indication that track maintenance is at the core of the investigation of the Aug. 20 accident.
Lawrence Mann, a Washington attorney who specializes in rail safety litigation, said the fact the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and the United Transportation Union are sitting out the investigation is a clear sign that the actions of the engineers and other crew members are not under suspicion.
"They're clearly focused on the track as one of the possibilities," he said.
According to the NTSB's preliminary report, the CSX coal train that derailed was traveling at 25 mph under cloudy skies and calm winds. The speed limit for the train through downtown Ellicott City is 25 mph, the report said.
Damage from the accident, which took place just before midnight, is estimated at $2.2 million, according to the report. That figure includes the cost of environmental cleanup.
Ellicott City natives Elizabeth Nass and Rose Mayr were sitting on the bridge when the train derailed, spilling coal onto the town's Main Street and burying the 19-year-olds. The young women, who were about to begin their junior years in college, died of "compressional asphyxia," according to the state medical examiner.
Accident investigators have reviewed track maintenance records and collected samples of the rails near the accident area, and are still analyzing them, the report said. The NTSB has also inspected the locomotives, signals and derailed cars, according to the report.
The final accident report could take more than a year to complete, though the safety board occasionally releases factual findings — not a conclusion about the cause — within several months. An agency spokesman said Thursday that such a release is not anticipated in the Ellicott City derailment.
If track conditions were found to be a factor in the derailment, it would confirm the account Patrick Moran, a consultant with RK&K Engineering who lives near the railroad bridge, gave to a Baltimore Sun reporter the day after the derailment.
Moran said he was walking along Main Street near his apartment when he heard the crash. He went to the tracks and ran toward the back of the train, where he met a man who identified himself as the conductor and said "the rail blew out" before the cars started going off the tracks.
A spokesman for CSX, which also is a party to the investigation, said the company is cooperating in the probe and referred questions to the NTSB.
Mann, a lawyer with the firm of Alper, Mann & Weisbaum, said track problems are the most frequent causes of derailments.
But he said railroads often try to conceal maintenance lapses. "In many cases they attribute it to employee error where there are a number of other causes of an accident," he said.
Mann said the Federal Railroad Administration, the regulatory agency for the industry, compiles records of derailments but only rarely questions a railroad's explanation of an accident.
One problem with the nation's rail system is that railroad employment has been cut "drastically" in recent years. Mann said. "The problem of course is that there aren't enough eyes to view all of the trackage all of the time," he said.
Federal Railroad Administration records show that CSX had 75 derailments in the first six months of this year — 24 of which were attributed to track, roadbed and other structural issues, and 34 to human factors. None of the 75 involved fatalities, and most took place in train yards and involved moderate damages.
The most costly was a 28-car derailment in Abbeville, S.C., that caused $1.4 million in damage to track and equipment. Like the Ellicott City accident, it occurred on a main line.
According to the records, which cover January through June, one of those incidents occurred in Maryland — a 22-car derailment in Allegany County that was attributed to track issues. There were no injuries in the derailment, which caused $236,303 in damage.
CSX also had a single-car derailment in Woodstock in western Howard County Aug. 8.
An early version of this article incorrectly stated the frequency of the safety board's release of factual findings in an investigation.