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Collision on the Brunswick Line
Silver Spring, Maryland

Amtrak/MARC Train Crash
Silver Spring - 1996

Collision on the Brunswick Line
Text-only version

Photo: Washington Post
Derailed locomotive of MARC commuter train No 283

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Silver Spring Maryland, 16 February 1996. An engineer's forgetfulness led to a commuter train becoming engulfed in flames when it ploughed into the Capitol Limted.

At the approaches to Washington, local commuter trains and crack Amtrak expresses share the same tracks. Owned and controlled by the freight railroad, CSX the line is known as the Brunswick Line. Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) provides the service between Washington and Brunswick although the trains are actually operated by CSX with their employees.

In the mid-afternoon of Friday February 16, 1996, MARC commuter train No 286 left Brunswick headed for Washington. The train consisted of 3 passenger cars and a locomotive. This was a "push-pull" unit with a locomotive at one end of the train and the rear-most passenger car having a driving position. This arrangement avoids the necessity for the locomotive to be turned and re-attached to the train at each terminus. On the journey to Washington, the locomotive was "pushing" the train with control cab car No 7752 leading.

The Capitol Limited

The Capitol Limited was inaugerated in 1923 by the B&O to run between Washington, New York and Chicago

At around 1630 the train drew into Harpers Ferry in West Virginia. Here, amongst the passengers who boarded the train were 14 Job Corps trainees. They were returning home for their first leave since joining the government training scheme. They chose to ride in the front car that afternoon. Also in that car, in the driver's cab were the 3 CSX crew. The engineer with 25 years railroad experience, the conductor and the assistant conductor.

Almost an hour later, at Washington's Union station Amtrak train No 29 the "Capitol Limited" had boarded its 175 passengers and departed on time at 1725. As the train headed into the early evening gloom, there was a fresh fall of snow on the ground. For those of the passengers travelling all the way to Chicago, their train would carry them through the night. The train consisted of 14 cars including two sleeping cars, a lounge car and a dining car. In addition, at the front of the train there were four baggage cars. Two powerful, diesel locomotives built by General Motors headed the train.

Manoeuvering into Disaster

Courtesy of Washington Post

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As the "Limited" headed north west through the suburbs of Washington a freight train ahead of it had stalled. So as not to impede the progress of the passenger train, the operator at the CSX control centre switched the train to the southbound running line where it would pass the freight. When it was clear, it would be switched back to the correct line. This was a perfectly safe, indeed routine operation. The signalling system permitted such a manoeuvre by ensuring that signals displayed a red aspect to oncoming trains.

As MARC train 286 approached Kensington the colour-light signal displayed a yellow aspect, warning that the next signal was at red. The rules require that the engineer should reduce speed to below 30 mph in order to be ready to stop should the next signal remain at danger. The red was at Georgetown Junction, protecting the wrong line manoeuvre being performed by the Capitol Limited. Georgetown Junction is about three miles from Kensington.

Although it was not a normal station stop for this service, the commuter train stopped at Kensington station. When he re-started, the on-board data recorder shows that the engineer appears to have "forgotten" the yellow aspect of the previous signal and allowed the speed to creep up to 63 mph. Although there were two other crew-members in the cab with him, neither seems to have drawn the engineer's attention to his excessive speed. A signal which was located between Kensington and Gerogetown Junction had been removed some time earlier. This may have provided the engineer with a warning of his inattention. In the event, he saw the danger signal at a distance of about 1100 feet. This was too late to prevent a collision. It was estimated that his train required a distance of 2000 feet to stop. In trying to stop the train, the engineer made an emergency application of the brakes. But, he also made an error by operating the reverser. This action effectively rendered the dynamic braking system inoperative and increased the distance in which the train could be brought to a full stop. The conductors, realising that a collision was imminent began to run through the train warning passengers to "get down". The time was 1739.

Photo: Popperfoto
The intensity of the fire prevented rescuers from reaching the bodies of the eleven people killed in car 7752

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The locomotives of the Amtrak train were on the crossover between the southbound and northbound lines when the collision occurred. The MARC train's speed had reduced to about 40 mph as it struck the second of the Amtrak engines. The front of the lead car was crushed and the left side partially torn away as the car was deflected along the side of the Amtrak train. By a cruel twist of fate, the second Amtrak locomotive was of an older design than the lead loco and carried its fuel tanks outside the main structure. One or more of these ruptured and fuel was sprayed into the wreckage of car 7752 and ignited.

Residents in nearby condominiums immediately alerted the emergency services and fire crews were on the scene in a matter of minutes. People travelling in car 7752 found that escape was difficult. One survivor described how he could not find the emergency door handle in the smoke. The intensity of the flames in that car prevented any attempt at rescue. Rescuers recalled how they could hear people hammerring on the windows in their attempts to break them to get out.

An impromptu hospital was set up in the condominiums to accept the injured passengers - 11 from the commuter train and 15 from the Amtrak train. Eleven people were killed, 8 of the 14 Job Corps trainees and the 3 CSX crew-members. Autopsies revealed that although all the bodies suffered "crush" injuries, 8 of them were not so severe as to cause death. The inescapable conclusion was that they had been killed in the fire.

The Inquiry

The Inquiry held by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reported some 17 months after the accident. It found that the immediate cause was due to "apparent failure of the engineer and the traincrew, because of multiple distractions to operate MARC train 286 according to signal indications". It was critical of the lack of consideration for safety in implementing resignalling in the area. It also highlighted the lack of some form of Automatic Train Control (ATC) which would have given the driver a positive indication that his actions were contrary to the authorised movement of the Amtrak train.

In all, the report made 36 recommendations. These ranged from recommending that ATC be installed on the Brunswick Line and that the emergency services should conduct training and drills to ensure a co-ordianted and effective response in similar situations. Subjects of the recommendations included the Federal Railroad Commision, Federal Transit Administration, CSX, Maryland Mass Transit Administration, US Department of Transportation, Association of American Railroads, Emergency Services organisations and railroad unions.

"Final Report of the Inquiry into the Derailment and Collision of MARC Commuter Train with Amtrak 'Capitol Limited'", National Transportation Safety Board
The Washington Post
The Nando times

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Copyright David Fry 1999
This file last updated: Wednesday, 19-May-1999 18:41:06 EDT