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Agency Orders Emergency Train Repairs

Probe: U.S. officials sharply criticize safety procedures after fatal derailment. Engineer has said the brakes failed.

February 07, 1996|ERIC MALNIC and TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SAN BERNARDINO — The Federal Railroad Administration sharply criticized the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad's safety procedures Tuesday night and issued an emergency order requiring trains like the one that derailed in the Cajon Pass last week to be equipped with extra braking devices.

The agency said that although the cause of Thursday's fatal derailment has not been determined, it appears that a blocked air brake line may have contributed to the accident. The train's engineer, who survived the crash that killed two crewmen, has said the brakes failed.

The emergency order requires the railroad to equip its trains with special radio-controlled bypass systems--in working order--that permit an engineer at the front of a train to apply the brakes at the rear of the train, even if there is a blockage in the air brake line.

Although the train involved in the fatal crash was equipped with the bypass system, it apparently had not been activated, the Federal Railroad Administration said in its report.

"The FRA has reason to believe that [the railroad's] procedures for ensuring the safe passage of trains through the Cajon Pass are presently inadequate to protect public and employee safety," the report said.

The tracks on which the accident occurred belonged to the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe railroad before it recently merged with the Burlington Northern to become the Burlington Northern Santa Fe. The Burlington Northern and the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe are now two divisions of a single parent company.

Noting that a Santa Fe train on the same tracks broke loose in December 1994 before crashing into a parked coal train--apparently because of a blocked or constricted air brake line--the agency said Tuesday that it "also is concerned about other indications that the ATSF has not been taking appropriate actions to prevent such accidents."

The agency said the railroad has not been ensuring, during pre-departure inspections, that bypass systems on trains about to descend the steep Cajon Pass grade "have been properly activated to permit brake application from the rear of the train."

"This additional evidence of inadequate practices . . . underscores the need for immediate action to prevent a recurrence," the agency said.

The agency did not specify what evidence it has, and agency officials were not available to elaborate Tuesday night.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe officials said the railroad had been in full compliance with an earlier agency order that had not mandated use of the emergency bypass systems until 1998. They said they complied with the new order a few hours after the crash--more than four days before it was issued officially.

Bill Schulz, a spokesman for the Department of Transportation in Washington, said 50 of the department's investigators have been sent to Southern California to inspect various facilities of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads. He said he did not know which facilities would be inspected, or what the investigators are looking for.

The DOT investigators will supplement a National Transportation Safety Board team that is studying the train's "black box" recorder and crash site evidence in an attempt to determine the cause of Thursday's derailment.

The train's engineer, who has not been identified, has said that although the brakes worked properly as he neared the top of the grade, they failed as he started downhill, according to Mike Martin, a spokesman for the railroad.

NTSB officials have confirmed that the crew radioed moments before the derailment that the 3,218-foot-long train was speeding out of control as it headed down the pass.

The train accelerated to between 50 to 60 mph--about four times the authorized speed--before plunging from the rails and bursting into flames, Martin said. Noxious fumes from ruptured tank cars wafted across nearby Interstate 15, prompting officials to close the highway shortly after the crash.

Interstate 15 reopened Friday afternoon after the flames died down, then was closed again Sunday night when experts concluded that an ominously gurgling tank car might explode. The reinforced tank car remained intact.

Explosive experts detonated two small charges on the troublesome tank car Monday night, opening foot-wide holes to relieve pressure and drain the last of the chemical contents.

About 2,000 gallons of syrupy butyl acrylate, a highly flammable compound used in the manufacture of paints and caulking, drained into a pit dug to contain the chemicals, said Bill Peters, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry. The gooey mess was scooped up for disposal and freeway traffic flowed once again.

"Everyone's real happy that the problem's resolved," Peters said.

A spokesman for the railroad said the remaining train wreckage, which has been removed from the tracks, will be cut up and hauled away. All three tracks that run through the Cajon Pass were reopened for train traffic Monday night, the railroad said.

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