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Rail safety to be examined by panels in U.S. Senate and General Assembly Lawmakers, experts convene in wake of Silver Spring crash


As federal investigators continue their probe into what caused a deadly commuter rail crash in Silver Spring two weeks ago, a U.S. Senate panel is to hold a hearing today in Washington on the safety of the nation's railroads.

The hearing in Room 253 of the Russell Senate Office Building at 2:30 p.m. will bring together officials from federal oversight agencies as well as union and industry representatives.

"Since the beginning of 1996, there have been seven serious accidents involving our nation's freight and/or passenger railroads," said Sen. Larry Pressler, a South Dakota Republican, who will preside at the Senate Commerce Committee hearing. "Although it is too early to know the probable causes of each of these accidents, a comprehensive review of our nation's federal rail safety policies and the agencies responsible for rail safety enforcement is necessary."

"I want the hearing to focus on what we can do to prevent these tragedies from occurring," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, who also is expected to testify before the Senate panel.

A legislative committee in Annapolis also is going to discuss the Silver Spring crash today. The Joint Committee on Federal Relations will be looking at whether the state should enter a longtime province of the federal government and begin regulating commuter rail safety, said Del. Peter Franchot, the committee's House chairman.

Among those scheduled to testify in Washington are Jolene M. Molitoris, administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, and Jim Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. Other witnesses include Edwin L. Harper, president of the Association of American Railroads, and Ronald P. McLaughlin, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers.

Meanwhile, NTSB officials will arrive in Jacksonville, Fla., today to review records at the operations center of CSX Transportation Inc., where dispatchers using computers and radios control trains in 20 states east of the Mississippi.

Investigators will review dispatch tapes and procedures as well as addressing complaints from engineers about alleged problems with the signal system, said NTSB officials. Numerous engineers said they have continuing problems receiving the wrong signals.

But company officials strongly defend the integrity of the system, and federal investigators say the probe is centered on whether a MARC train engineer, Richard Orr, 43, of Glen Burnie, missed a yellow signal that should have warned him to slow down for an approaching red signal. Shortly thereafter, the commuter train collided with an Amtrak train. Mr. Orr, two other crew members and eight MARC passengers died in the Feb. 16 accident.

The hearing is expected to review various technologies that would make rail travel safer.

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