U.S. cuts speed on rail lines safety assailed; New speed limits might have prevented Silver Spring accident; Order takes effect today; Rail workers recall defective signals, near-collisions

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Federal railroad authorities yesterday issued an emergency order limiting train speeds beginning today -- a directive that probably would have saved the 11 lives lost in the collision of Amtrak and MARC trains Friday night in Silver Spring.

But 16 railroad workers interviewed by The Sun this week allege that CSX Transportation Inc., the private company that owns and maintains the tracks, has ignored serious safety problems that go beyond the new rules imposed by federal regulators.

The workers assert that a track signal system controlling trains like those involved in the crash is so troublesome that the workers began keeping a log book two years ago to record its failures.

Railroad employees now request work in the freight yards because the signal system makes riding the rails so unsafe, workers say.

They also complain that the Brunswick line involved in the crash lacks a standard safety feature that might have prevented the collision: a train cab signal showing the most recent track signal and the one coming up.

CSX Transportation officials said the workers' allegations were unfounded and claimed the company has a sterling safety record.

Federal crash investigators say the engineer on the MARC commuter train might have forgotten seeing a yellow track signal directing him to proceed slowly after departing the Kensington station that night. He speeded up to 63 mph before braking in a futile attempt to stop the train from colliding with an Amtrak train, federal investigators say.

The order by the Federal Railroad Administration, which went into effect after midnight last night, limits trains to a speed of 30 mph after stopping at a station or after slowing down to less than 10 mph. The train can speed up only after receiving authorization from a green signal.

The requirement applies only to trains that are not equipped with cab signals or do not have automatic train controls.

Federal officials said that MARC could comply with the safety order by using cab signals on its two lines operated by CSX: the Brunswick line from Washington to West Virginia and the Camden line between Baltimore and Washington.

The Amtrak-run MARC trains on the Penn line, which runs from Washington to Baltimore and then north to Perryville, use cab signals.

Grady C. Cothen Jr., the railroad administration's deputy associate administrator for safety standards, said the upgrade would require that miles of track circuits be installed at a cost of millions of dollars. "It would be the logical step," Mr. Cothen said.

A spokeswoman for CSX said: "We are studying the order and we intend to fully comply with its directives. Safety is our No. 1 priority, so we're always seeking ways to make our railway operation safer."

Transportation Secretary Federico F. Pena said the order slowing the trains will cause "some delays" on about 12 rail systems nationwide. Eight other rail systems are not affected by the order because they have cab signals or other adequate train controls.

A Maryland Mass Transit Administration spokesman said last night they couldn't predict how MARC schedules will be affected by the directive, but some delays on the Brunswick and Camden lines seemed inevitable.

Other safety improvements ordered by federal officials:

* Require engineers to call out to another crew member when they see a red or yellow signal.

* Order commuter rail operators such as MARC to make sure all emergency exits are clearly marked and working properly within 60 days.

* Require railroads to submit safety plans within the next 45 days that show what steps they are taking to make passenger service safer.

Federal officials, continuing to investigate the Silver Spring crash and an earlier crash this month in New Jersey, said the mishaps have raised questions about the use of cab cars. The lead car in the MARC train was a cab car, meaning an engineer could run the train from a small compartment at the front, while the train was being pushed by an engine at the rear.

"There are inherent risks in [this arrangement]," Mr. Pena said.

All the people killed in the Silver Spring crash were in the front car of the MARC train, which was destroyed in the collision and subsequent fire. The question investigators are examining is whether passenger trains should instead be pulled by an engine in front, protecting other cars.

Federal investigators are still uncertain why the engineer of the MARC train speeded up after passing a yellow signal that should have slowed him down.

Dr. John E. Smialek, the Maryland medical examiner, said the engineer had no trace of drugs or alcohol in his system. Other crew members had only traces of over-the-counter medications.

The changes ordered by federal regulators will not solve some of the concerns raised in interviews by CSX workers and union officials, most of whom asked not to be named. The workers said they have signed agreements permitting CSX to fire them for publicly criticizing the company -- a claim disputed by CSX.

The workers' complaints focus on CSX's signal system, which they contend is unreliable despite an upgrade in 1993. The train crews find the new signal system troublesome because it relies more on computers operated in Jacksonville, Fla., than on local dispatchers.

One experienced CSX freight engineer recalled three separate occasions in the past two years when his train could have collided with a MARC train. In all three cases the MARC engineers claimed they had received the wrong signal, he said. The accidents were avoided because the trains could see each other from a distance.

Last summer, according to several CSX workers, the engineer of a MARC train received a green light to proceed toward a junction south of Rockville, then heard a dispatcher instruct another train onto the same track. The MARC train managed to stop safely.

CSX officials strongly disputed criticisms of the signal system.

"We're not going to comment on unsubstantiated rumors," said Kathy Burns, a CSX spokeswoman. "Overall, the entire issue about the signal system is part of the [federal] investigation and they have asked us not to comment on any aspects of the investigation.

"We have an excellent safety record of MARC trains on our line," she said.

But local members of the United Transportation Union and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers say they have made CSX aware of the problems, but assert the company has ignored them.

"There have been numerous, numerous complaints made," said Daniel Buchanan, an officer with the United Transportation Union.

"CSX-T is big on safety verbally until it's going to cost them a few bucks. That's why we don't have cab signal indicators," said a CSX freight conductor. "They've had problems with their signaling system and have tried to keep it hush-hush. I know of two cases where conscientious engineers were suspended -- in one case for 90 days without pay -- for running a red signal when it was clear.

"There was another case near Jessup where an engineer was removed after again being accused of running a red and three hours later put back into service when it was found that there had been a problem with the board in Jacksonville that indicated a stop signal," the freight conductor said.

Other workers described the alarming experience of rounding a turn to find another train up ahead and then having to stop.

"Try that with 23,000 tons of coal behind you traveling at 40 miles per hour," said one engineer. "That's not supposed to happen."

Emergency order

The emergency order issued yesterday by Transportation Secretary Federico F. Pena requires that:

* Trains leaving stations go no faster than 30 mph until the engineer sees a green signal.

* Engineers call out to other crew members whenever they see yellow or red signals telling them to slow down or stop.

* Commuter rail operators, such as MARC, conduct immediate safety inspections of emergency exits on all passenger cars.

* Commuter rail operators develop long-term safety plans.

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