Silver Spring, MD Commuter Train Collision, Feb 1996

Silver Springs MD wreck 1996-2-16 2.jpg Silver Springs MD wreck 1996-2-16 1.jpg

TRAIN OPERATOR FAILED TO SLOW?

Silver Spring, Md., -- (AP) -- Federal investigators combing through the twisted wreckage of a deadly railway crash yesterday began focusing on whether the engineer of a commuter train missed a warning signal to slow down.
The engineer jammed on his emergency brakes 15 seconds before the nearly head-on crash with Amtrak's Capitol Limited, said John Goglia of the National Transportation Safety Board.
The MARC commuter train was going 63 mph when its operator hit the brakes, 1,100 feet before the Friday night collision that killed 11.
Listing of the Fatalities:
RICKY ORR, 43, engineer, Glen Burnie, Md.
JIMMY MAJORS, JR., 48, conductor, Linthicum, Md.
JIM QUILLEN, assistant conductor, Frederick, Md.
Job Corps Members:
DANTE SWAIN, 18, Baltimore, Md.
CARLOS BYRD, 17, Baltimore, Md.
LAKEISHA MARSHALL, 17, Capitol Heights, Md.
CLAUDIUS KESSOON, 20, Landover, Md.
MICHAEL WOODSON, 16, Philadelphia, Pa.
DIANA HANVICHID, 17, Woodbridge, Va.
THOMAS LOATMAN, 23, Vienna, Va.
KARIS RUDDER, 17, East Elmhurst, N.Y.
The train had slowed to 40 mph by the time it struck the Amtrak train, which was coming in the opposite direction at 30 mph, Mr. Goglia said.
"Clearly the focus is moving toward the operator since we have found absolutely no difficulties anywhere else," Mr. Goglia said.
All three members of the commuter crew are presumed to have died in the crash that sent a fireball into the sky that was visible for miles in Silver Spring.
"If there's a problem, it's going to be with the MARC train," Mr. Goglia said in an interview adding that the Amtrak train was cleared all the way.
"The commuter train should not have been going faster than 30 mph if the warning signals were operating properly and the engineer observed them," Mr. Goglia said.
Investigators have not found any problems with the signals but Mr. Goglia said they cannot be fully tested until the wreckage is removed because it is resting on sensors mounted in the track.
Train movement is controlled by red and green signals and Mr. Goglia said determining whether they had changed to warn the MARC train is "the critical question."
Investigators are reviewing data in a recorder that keeps track of the signals. Crews from other trains in the area at that time are also being interviewed.
The CSX dispatcher directing train movement is being brought to Washington from Jacksonville, Fla., to meet with investigators, he said.
"He is the choreographer of train movements, he has a very critical role and that's why we have asked him to come here," Mr. Goglia said.
"There is absolutely no indication of sabotage," he said.
"While the commuter train had slammed on its brakes the Amtrak train which was being switched to another track had not done so, nor would you want to," he said.
"He wants to clear the tracks," said Mr. Goglia. "Put yourself in the (Amtrak) engineers position, he wants to clear the crossover before the lights that are coming toward him."
The tracks in Silver Spring are controlled by CSX Transportation from a command center in Jacksonville, Fla. There dispatchers can monitor the movements of trains electronically and operate switches and light signals by radio signal.
Mr. Goglia said the safety board is reviewing recorders that monitor the signals and switches. "Obviously the whole system needs to be examined. That's what we're doing right now."
Most of the victims were Job Corps trainees traveling home from West Virginia for a holiday weekend but the three members of the commuter train crew were also presumed dead.
All 17 passengers abourd the wrecked train were Job Corps students. Another had gotten off the train minutes earlier in Rockville.
Among the Job Corps members unaccounted for yesterday were two teens from Baltimore and two young people from Prince George's County.
President Clinton said Americans "extend our thoughts and prayers to the families' of the accident victims. We are working hard to find out what caused this tragedy."
"The Job Corps members were taking a journey of personal responsibility," Mr. Clinton said. "They were working hard to better themselves and we salute their lives as we mourn their deaths."
Labor Secretary Robert Reich, whose department administers the Job Corps, called the fatal crash "an especially poingant tragedy, because the students had made a decision to make something more out of their lives."
After surveying the wreckage, Gov. Parris N. Glendening described the scene as devastating.
"All I can pray for is that those who died, died instantaneously."
The 11 bodies recovered from the wreckage were taken to the Baltimore medical examiner's office where DNA tests and dental records would be used to make identifications. Montgomery County police said the process could take several days.
Mr. Goglia said it was unlikely any of the crew members could have survived. "Did you see the cab? If you did I don't think you'd ask that question," he said.
Analyists studied data compiled from the three 'black box' recorders recovered from the trains, which were examined overnight. The recording devices keep track of such things as the train's speed, throttle position, brakes, direction of movement, time, distance and whether the horn was sounded.
The MARC commuter train was pushed by its locomotive though the crew ran the unit from a cab in the front passenger car.
Most of the passengers were also in the the front car. MARC passengers bound for Washington sit as far forward as possible to be closer to the gate into Union Station.
Having the locomotive push the train also meant the commuter passenger cars bore the brunt of the collision with two 130 ton Amtrak locomotives followed by six mail cars. Only minor injuries were reported among the Amtrak passngers whose cars were well back in the train.
While there are two parallel tracks in the area, trains routinely move back and forth between them and both tracks carry trains in either direction.
Here's how Mr. Goglia described the train movement leading up to the crash from the perspective of someone facing away from Washington.
The Amtrak train departed on the right hand track, but was switched to the left track to pass a stopped freight train. The MARC train was inbound on the left track.
After passing the freight train, the Amtrak liner was being switched back to the right when the collision occurre.

The Capital Annapolis Maryland 1996-02-18