Skip to comments.Nation: Three on Amtrak Auto Train engaged emergency brakes
Posted on 04/20/2002 6:12:53 PM PDT by ATOMIC_PUNK
CRESCENT CITY, Fla. (April 20, 2002 7:34 p.m. EDT) - Investigators said Saturday that two Amtrak engineers and a conductor hit the emergency brakes just seconds before a train derailment that left four people dead and more than 150 injured.
The lead engineer of the Amtrak Auto Train told the National Transportation Safety Board that he saw a disjointed track about an hour into a trip from Sanford to Lorton, Va., and slammed on the engine's brake.
Seconds later, a backup engineer in the locomotive cab and a conductor two cars back felt the train hit the disjointed track and switched on emergency brakes as well, NTSB board member George Black said Saturday.
The NTSB hasn't said if its investigators have been able to verify if the track was misaligned.
The train's two engines and first two cars stayed on the tracks, but more than half of the Auto Train's 40 cars derailed Thursday afternoon, throwing passengers to the floor and against walls. The train was going 56 mph in a 60 mph zone at the time, investigators said.
The four people killed - all vacationers and snowbirds returning to the North from Florida - were identified as Frank Alfredo, 67, of Waccabuc, N.Y.; Joan DiStefano, 65, of Staten Island, N.Y.; and Joseph Wright, 75, and his wife, Marjorie, 70, of Toronto.
A person who answered the phone Saturday at Alfredo's landscaping business in Pound Ridge, N.Y., said the family was going through a lot and declined to comment. Alfredo and his wife, Dolores, have five grown children and had just sold their home a few weeks ago, a neighbor said.
DiStefano's son, Robert, reached at the family's home Saturday, declined to offer any details about his mother. The family of Joseph and Marjorie Wright had gone to Florida, Canada Foreign Affairs Department spokeswoman Martine Lagace said Saturday.
The train's two engineers were put on temporary administrative leave, a standard procedure in an investigation, Amtrak spokeswoman Kathleen Cantillon said Saturday. She said she didn't think either played a role in the accident.
"We feel they acted appropriately," Cantillon said.
The train's lead engineer had 35 years of experience, Black said.
Saturday's Auto Train was bound for Washington with 418 passengers and 34 crew members, as well as 200 automobiles stacked in 23 specially designed cars, when it derailed.
The tracks had been visually inspected eight hours earlier and had been in good condition, according to CSX, the freight railroad that owns the track.
Four other trains had passed over the area just before the wreck, including a southbound train carrying coal. A preliminary examination of the coal train and another train showed no problems, but investigators wanted to perform another inspection on the coal train, which passed only six to eight minutes earlier at 35 mph.
It is not uncommon for rails to expand in the Florida heat, but Black said the temperature, 81 degrees, did not appear to be a factor. Misalignments can also be caused by damage done by a previous train.
CSX spokeswoman Jane Covington didn't immediately return messages seeking comment Saturday.
An audit by federal inspectors two years ago raised questions about the effectiveness of CSX's track inspection, maintenance and track construction programs. The Federal Railroad Administration faulted CSX for failing to make track repairs quickly and said several track-related derailments could have been prevented with better inspections and maintenance.
Amtrak officials hoped to have the Auto Train running again by Monday or Tuesday, Cantillon said Saturday. Workers in hard hats and reflective vests used cranes Saturday to clear away the remaining rail cars.
The derailment was Amtrak's deadliest accident since March 15, 1999, when a train collided with a truck and derailed near Bourbonnais, Ill., killing 13 people and injuring more than 100.
The last Auto Train accident was in 1998, when a train hit an empty car at a crossing in the Virginia town of Jarratt. There were no injuries.
I wonder if an electronic system might be useable today to perform such a function. Running a tester-train over the track while taking detailed measurements might be a useful adjunct to visual inspection, and if such readings were also taken on normal trains and kept for a week or so it would allow track problems to be researched both on an ongoing basis and after any accident.
Right, but if the recorders were used on general-purpose trains, they might be able to, with proper software, detect rail problems which develop between inspections.
Yeah, well that's a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation, since going through a disjointed rail section at speed isn't apt to be safe either.
Still, the earlier question about whether the rear of the train was pushing the front, with the passengers in the middle, seems like a good one. Passenger cars today are constructed to be unbelievably rigid. While this is in many ways better than the old days when they would "telescope", crushing anyone inside, it still does not allow any place to dissipate the kinetic energy of a train going 60mph.
One thing I was wondering about is whether it would be useful to construct trains with one or two "crusher" cars which would not be populated but would be designed to collapse to a fraction of their original length without derailing, and possibly to come apart in case the train in front derailed (so as to avoid if at all possible derailing the cars in back).
Although in the Bourbonais crash a few years ago the locomotive was in front, I feel somewhat paranoid about trains where the locomotive is in the rear. If the front of such a train hits anything, the locomotive is going to put a lot of kinetic energy into the rest of the train.
My thinking was that if one records the vibrations produced by imperfections in the track every time a train passes over, and compares them day-to-day, it may be possible to detect anomolies before they cause catastrophic failures. With proper software, the effect would be that every time a train went over a stretch of track it would be somewhat "inspected" without extra labor being required. Of course, more detailed inspections should be done periodically as well, but useful trains run over the rails much more frequently than inspectors.
People don't just walk out of a RR equivalent of flight school and become Amtrak engineers. I bet they average at least 20 years of RR service. I see no indication that they acted less than professionaly. If the engineer had been speeding or engaged in some kind of crew sabotage, I can assure you we'd know it by now. The RR is probably the hardest place to keep a secret.
Your idea to prevent more accidents might put a couple of people out of work.
The Union workers will be outraged!
Kind of puts a different spin on this story for me.
I guess my grandma being sick kept them from being on that train.
It is very doubtful that applying the emergency brakes caused the derailment. On a normal passenger train(say less than 20 cars) the risk is near zero. This was a longer train(39 cars, about 3200' long), but the real risk are for long freight trains(100-160+ cars cars, 1-2 miles long) with different types of couplers and more of them which would increase the slack action. The real key is the weight, with heavy cars slamming into light cars. But there really isn't much weight difference between the rear auto carriers and the passenger cars, so I doubt it made much of a difference here. Even with freights, the risk is low. I can't tell you how many times I've been on long, heavy trains that went into emergency, but not once did they derail. But that doesn't mean we don't sweat a little each time it happens(especially a conductor, because he then has to walk the entire length of the train(and likely back, could be a 4 mile nature walk on uneven rock ballast the size of grapefruit) to inspect for damage or problems. No fun on a cold rainy night of lightning on a steep grade, where he'll also have to set and later release a dozen or two hand brakes, and if he does 'em too loose, it'll roll away!)
Plus there is a device on the rear of each train that can apply the emergency brakes from the rear if the engineer hits the button(and on some engines this is automatic). So if the engineer puts the train in emergency and also hits the rear switch, it will apply for both ends of the train and substantially reduce the amount of run-in that would take place. Train brakes are based on air, and the engine has to keep pumping air to keep them released. If the air drops, they will begin to set. An engineer normally applies the brakes by reducing the air pressure by a certain # of lbs./sq. inch, a little for a slight reduction, more for greater. What the emergency brake does is evacuate all the air out of the brake line, for a full application. But each car's brakes are also designed to allow the wheel to continue rolling and not lock up. So it still takes a ways to stop from 56mph(it isn't like an automobile) and the passengers often don't even feel the difference of an emergency application. I doubt the noise some said they heard was the brakes, but rather the effects of the accident unfolding. Bottom line, it is always better to get the speed down when approaching a defect, especially for a passenger train.
Am hearing more talk of a sun kink, but that's unusual for the weather that day. 81 degrees is not real hot, the low earlier was in the low 60's, so that not an extreme range of temperature change in a short time. But perhaps some combination of direct sunlight and substandard maintenance. Mainline rail these days is usually a long continuous strip, as opposed to the old 39' sections historically used. The advantage of CWR(Continuously Welded Rail) is that substantially reduces these joints, the most likely place for a failure(that's why you rarely here the rhythmic clickety-clack sound anymore, which was the wheel hitting the joints every 39'). The disadvantage is there is much less room and outlets for expansion due to temperature change that the joints would have provided. So if some of the anchoring devices that hold the rails to the ties fail under stress, a kink can result. Might not have been enough to affect a heavy slow coal train, but trip up the passenger train. Perhaps the coal train triggered the failure as it passed over it. Another possibility is a broken rail, where it actually separates. But those are much harder to spot at high speed. And there are still rail joints at certain locations, so one rail could have broken loose at a joint and become misaligned enough to be visible.
As to inspections, the in-depth analysis to detect hidden rail flaws(some x-ray type computer device) happens on a regular basis, but I don't think it is required mored than 2 or 4 times a year. That's why the visual inspection is so critical. Nothing is failsafe, but often times it is a judgement call, walk most any mainline and you can find minor defects such as loose spikes, fasteners, bolts, etc. However one here or there isn't that critical, but when several go in a small area, then there can be problems.
Hard to say yet what happened. Seems pretty clear that there was a track defect. Whether it was act of God, sabotage, or due to poor maintenance isn't clear. And there is also the chance of some type of equipment failure on the cars that was the actual trigger, preventing the train from riding out the track defect.
If the coal train passed over that track only 6-8 minutes before, that pretty much rules out any sabotage in those few minutes. But there are ways that might not have shown up with the coal train. If sabotage is suspected, I bet we'll hear about it within a week.
Atomic Punk wrote: "Ill vouch for that diddle my uncle worked for chelse systems for 15 years before he could even get close to and engine and went through all kinds of schools to do it"
Not necessarily true. I've been a locomotive engineer for 23 years, having started with Conrail in 1979, and having since worked for Metro-North and Amtrak.
The Amtrak engineer training program takes about 18-24 months (different from when I went through, many years ago, before Amtrak). They generally take trainmen, but also hire into the craft from the mechanical and other departments.
When the trainees come out of the program they go right to work on whatever they can "hold". In fact, most of the high-speed "Acela Express" jobs from New York to Boston are "owned" by the YOUNGEST enginemen with the least experience. The older guys in our area all live in the New Haven area, whereas the company wanted the high-speed jobs out of NYC. As a result, they ended up hiring and training all brand-new people, because none of the older guys want that kind of work. I certainly don't.
My first "over the road" job was Amtrak trains 178 & 61, in May 1981. I'd NEVER RUN AN AMTRAK TRAIN BEFORE that job. I just got on and went. It really was different in the old days.... (grin)
There are also formal training schools for truck drivers. Not that they anywhere near approach the depth of class room and hands-on requirements of military fliers, but are there, nonetheless.
All of which brings me to to my original question of how does one qualify to operate a locomotive? I have seen employment ads for pilots as well as multiple ads of flight schools (wanting students). The same is true for truck drivers, but never in my lifetime have I seen an ad for a Locomotive engineer - or any hint of a training school for same. All of Which leads me to the conclusion, rightly or wrongly, that it is a closed society whose entry is restricted to members of the "family."
Its those slaves they employ! Blame the slave laborers.
(CSX is being sued for slave reparations)
But down in Florida, are there any fairly new engineers? I still would bet they all average at least 20 years. I loved freight RR money, but the hours killed me. Amtrak seemed like a nice compromise, but I had plans outside the RR. I do know a lot of older heads would talk about drifting over to Amtrak when they finally got sick of it all(I think they had flowback rights from Penn Central days, where they would keep their seniority?)
Yes, many new-hires were indeed 'family', being those with relatives already working for the RR. One reason for this is the nature of the job and the lifestyle. Odd hours, until recently no holidays off until you had many years of experience, seasonal layoffs for newhires, much time away from home, and no set schedule. Lots of divorces on the RR. Thus the retention rate is abysmal, half the guys the RR would train would quit within 6 months. So they figured people with family members on the RR may at least have a better since of the lifestyle demands. Nowadays railroads will send out hiring info to state job agencies, and even run ads in the paper. But they might do so one week, and then not again for 10 years.
Now to your actual question of how one trains to be an engineer. First you have to get hired by the RR. Background screening(no speeding tickets), psychological tests(don't answer yes when asked "Do you like to drive aggresively?"), and scare stories about how 'you'll spend Christmas in hotels and never see your kids grow up, so do you really want to do this?'. Once hired your sent to trainmen's school, 3-6 weeks plus of the basics(or some are required before hiring to attend a community college RR program, basically the same). Then you are assigned to ride along with crews for weeks or months to learn the territory and get hands on experiences as a brakeman or conductor. After a period(a few months to several years) of working as a brakeman or conductor in the yards and then on the road you may get a chance to bid on going to engineer school, all slots filled by seniority. That is 5 weeks of fairly intense training, followed by 6 months of riding with mentor engineers and gradually getting to run under their supervision in a variety of conditions. I believe then the student has to sit for certification.
Used to be that trainmen and engineers were separate crafts with separate unions and seniority, but nowadays the major RR's are forcing all trainmen to go to engineer's school. So the above sequence will vary from RR to RR, but that should give you an idea. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to be hired by the RR, but they try to look for people willing to take orders and meticulously follow a routine. Military background is a big plus. But in a pinch they also will hire some real nitwits. It just depends.
Is that with or without the autos in them?
What is it about the media that they believe they're obliged to seek-out, harass and badger family members at such a time of grief?