JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- When the MARC commuter train slammed into Amtrak's Capitol Limited in a deadly spiral of fire and twisted steel, a dispatcher some 800 miles to the south witnessed the disaster in an antiseptic, futuristic fashion.
Inside the operations center of CSX Transportation Inc., the dispatcher, like dozens of others in this large, circular and windowless room, wore a headset and sat behind two computer terminals, monitoring the movement of Baltimore-area trains on a 9-foot-tall screen, a multicolored patchwork of lines and numbers encircling the room.
Throughout the ordeal, workers said, there was no commotion in the dimly lighted operations center, only the clicking of computer keys and the muffled voices of the dispatchers.
But the calm, deliberate demeanor soon left the Baltimore area's dispatcher who was tracking Train 286 and the Amtrak train to which it had collided.
"He was very, very upset," recalled one dispatcher. "He had tears in his eyes when he found out people were killed."
The dispatcher asked to be relieved from his 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift, and his wife took him home. He has not returned.
"He's going to be off for a while," said a co-worker.
All the CSX engineers and dispatchers interviewed asked for anonymity, saying they were afraid they'd lose their jobs if they talked to a reporter. CSX has denied this would happen.
CSX officials refused to discuss the accident, its dispatch and signaling system, or the operations center, a bunkerlike building in a residential area of Jacksonville. The company did provide a short video on the center and some brochures.
The federal investigation into the Feb. 16 accident that killed 11 passengers and crewmen aboard Maryland Rail Commuter Train 286 has centered on the possibility of error by the engineer aboard the train, Richard Orr, 43, of Glen Burnie. Investigators are trying to determine whether he may have missed or forgot a yellow signal just before the Kensington station that would have warned him not to exceed 30 mph after leaving the station.
After the station, Mr. Orr accelerated to 63 mph before seeing the next signal, which was red, hitting his brakes and plowing into the Amtrak train at 40 mph, federal investigators said. He was killed in the crash.
But officials at the National Transportation Safety Board also are looking at the possibility that the signal before the Kensington station gave Mr. Orr an all-clear sign. They are collecting records from CSX and plan to visit the operations center this week to determine whether there was an error from either computers or dispatchers in Jacksonville, or with the trackside signal in Maryland.
"The signals and the placement of them is part of the investigation," said NTSB spokesman Pat Cariseo. "We have retrieved information from the signal recorders. It's under analysis."
At the operations center, electrical signals are received from distant tracks to indicate train locations. Dispatchers can see on the 9-foot-tall screen and on their workstation computer screens the signals that indicate each train's position on the tracks they're responsible for.
The computers can send instructions automatically to the train, or the dispatcher can override the computer and do it manually. These instructions tell the train engineer at the other end whether clear track lies ahead, or whether another train is on the same track. The dispatchers also are able to stay in touch with train crews by radio.
The operations center can monitor up to 1,300 trains a day on 19,000 miles of track that stretch from Canada to Florida and east from the Mississippi, taking in 20 states. About 100 of those trains are passenger or commuter lines.
The signaling system has been based in Jacksonville since 1989, when CSX consolidated 33 dispatcher locations scattered throughout the country into this 150-foot-diameter operations center. The move reduced an estimated 600 dispatchers to the current 300.
"Properly planned and executed, the center would increase efficiency, reduce operating expenses and eliminate outdated dispatching equipment in the field," according to a CSX brochure.
But some engineers in the Maryland area complain that the signal system in Florida is less reliable than local dispatchers were.
One freight engineer said that three times in the past year, his train nearly collided with a MARC train after he received the wrong signal. The engineers saw each other and avoided the accident, he said.
Jacksonville dispatchers, however, said that when the computers are operating normally, such a scenario is highly unlikely.
The computerized system "flags" errors and prevents a dispatcher from putting two trains on a collision course, said one dispatcher with more than 20 years' experience.
But another dispatcher conceded that there are occasional computer "glitches" that force them to take over from the computer. One portion of the system can go out, for example. When that happens, the dispatchers radio instructions to the engineers. Thus, there is the potential for verbally instructing the engineer to go onto the wrong track, this dispatcher said.
The dispatcher with more than 20 years' experience said computer glitches can take place 15 to 20 times a day throughout the system, though he does not recall any resulting accidents or near accidents. "I would say it's a possibility for a collision," he said, "but it's averted by either engineer or dispatcher."
Still another dispatcher said: "I've had situations where I didn't feel in control, because of not knowing what's going on out there."
"There are checks and double-checks," said Kathleen Burns, a CSX spokeswoman, who noted that the company is required to report any "false positive" signal to the Federal Railroad Administration. A "false positive" is a flashing green signal that should be yellow or red. Employees are told to report the occurrence of such problems. "Our records show that at least as far as 1990, there are no records of 'false positives,' " she said.
Edward English, director of the Federal Railroad Administration's Office of Assurance and Compliance, said he sees no problems with the Jacksonville operations center. "We think it operates safely and does a pretty good job," said Mr. English, who noted that the FRA inspects the center several times each year.
The dispatchers -- who receive a year of training before they sit in the operations center, and continue their training thereafter -- generally defend the integrity of the CSX system. But they point to several potential workplace problems.
Some said they are asked to juggle more trains during their shift than they can handle.
"We're overworked. Period," said a dispatcher with more than 15 years' service. "You've got too much going on."
The union representing the dispatchers, the American Train Dispatchers Department, based in Cleveland, has pressed the company to add dispatchers for some areas. To monitor the Baltimore area, for example, a second dispatcher per shift was added in December 1991.
Ms. Burns, the CSX spokeswoman, said such "work balance" issues are worked out between a committee representing the union and company management.
Dispatchers also criticize what they say are outmoded radios they use to communicate with engineers.
While acknowledging that the radios can get busy, other parties are supposed to wait while there is a transmission in progress, CSX officials said.