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Board Warns of Steep Train Routes

Mar 5, 2002 | Associated Press

Freight trains should descend steep grades more slowly, the National Transportation Safety Board (news - web sites) said Tuesday.

The recommendation, which is advisory only, stems from the board's investigation of a CSX Corp. coal train derailment that killed a 15-year-old boy in western Maryland on Jan. 30, 2000.

The railroads need time to study the latest NTSB (news - web sites) recommendations before responding, said Thomas White, spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, an industry trade group. Similar changes in Federal Railroad Administration rules are due to take effect in April 2004.

In the wreck at Bloomington, Md., the NTSB concluded a secondary braking system known as dynamic braking had partially failed without the engineer's knowledge. The primary air brakes couldn't stop the fully loaded, 80-car train as it roared down a 17-mile grade from Altamont, W.Va.

The train reached 59 mph, more than twice the 25 mph limit, before derailing on curves at the bottom of the hill. Seventy-six cars left the tracks around 7 a.m., demolishing the rented house where Eddie Rogers Jr. was sleeping.

Rogers died and four others escaped, including his mother, Libby Holstein, who was badly hurt. She and her daughter, who was not seriously injured, still live in Bloomington, about 130 miles from Washington.

CSX used dynamic braking to determine speed limits. The trains, however, do not give the engineer a way of knowing from minute to minute whether the dynamic braking system is operational.

Had the speed limit been based only on the air braking system, as the NTSB recommends, it would have been set somewhere below 17.7 mph, the fail-safe speed calculated by NTSB investigators.

The NTSB staff estimated there are 44 spots around the country where railroads should recalculate and, if necessary, reduce speed limits.

"The reason we don't have runaways every day is because dynamic braking systems have been working," said NTSB investigator Russell Quimby.

CSX lowered the speed limit on the 17-mile grade to 20 mph three days after the wreck, railroad spokesman Robert Sullivan said.

He said the Richmond, Va.-based railroad has implemented the NTSB recommendations as they were developed, although he didn't know the current speed limit on the 17-mile grade.

"Obviously it was a tragedy and we take full responsibility for the accident," Sullivan said.

The NTSB also recommended that CSX take specific steps to improve its safety training, especially regarding braking on steep grades.

The safety board faulted CSX for failing to train and oversee its engineer effectively. Before the accident, he had not operated a train on those tracks for four years and had not been given refresher training on the downhill run, contrary to his request and company rules, the NTSB found.

Attorney Gary Mims, who is representing Rogers' family in a lawsuit against CSX, said the accident was preventable.


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