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THE NATION

Track Said to Have a History of Problems

Accident: Investigators speculate that water drainage and sandy soil may have led to the derailment in Florida that killed 4.

April 21, 2002|From the Washington Post

CRESCENT CITY, Fla. — Track in the area where Amtrak's Auto Train derailed Thursday had experienced chronic problems with water drainage in the sandy Florida soil, and investigators said Saturday they are looking at the possibility that this contributed to the wreck that killed four passengers and injured more than 160 others.

George Black, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said investigators are concentrating on track problems as the probable cause of the derailment rather than any problem with Amtrak's locomotives, passenger cars or auto-carrying cars. He said investigators had found "nothing remarkable" in inspections of the Amtrak equipment.

Investigators are also looking at track maintenance in the area, Black said, as well as whether a coal train that passed over the same track six minutes before the wreck might have helped push at least one rail out of alignment.

Black said it was clear that the two Amtrak engineers had almost no time to react to what appears to have been a misalignment of the track as the train rounded a curve. The engineer at the controls, who he described as a "well-qualified" 35-year veteran, told investigators he saw the misaligned track "just as it was about to go under the nose of the engine."

The relief engineer said he never saw the misalignment but felt a violent shaking, as did the conductor who was three to four cars back on the train. All three immediately reached for emergency air brake valves, and Black said it is unclear which of the two engineers acted first.

The two locomotives and the first two passenger cars remained on the track despite the shaking, but the following 14 passenger cars and the first seven of the 23 auto rack cars derailed. Seven of the passenger cars turned over.

Authorities described the four people who died as vacationers and "snowbirds" who were returning to their homes up north. They were identified as Frank Alfredo, 68, of Waccabuc, N.Y.; Joan DiStefano, 65, of Staten Island; and husband and wife Joseph and Marjorie Wright of Toronto.

Twelve people remained hospitalized with broken bones and head injuries; the most serious being a 73-year-old woman who was listed in critical condition.

At a briefing, and later in an interview today, Black said CSX Transportation, which owns the tracks, had experienced drainage problems at the wreck site. Even though the area is not swampy, a culvert runs under the tracks and the sandy soil tends to become waterlogged.

This leads to what railroaders call "pumping," in which each passing train compresses the water into the subgrade below the track and pushes out soil particles. Eventually a "soft spot" forms, and the track tends to depress. Maintenance workers then must shore up the area with new ballast and smooth the track. Black said CSX last worked on the track on March 12, and it had been inspected repeatedly.

Black also said it appears that the track structure had been moving under the weight of trains, with the bond between crossties, steel tie plates and spikes getting loose.

"It looks like there was just a general instability in the area," Black said.

The crew of a heavy southbound coal train, which passed over the track six minutes before the northbound passenger train, noticed nothing unusual, Black said.

However, he noted that the coal train was slowing down as it went around the curve, preparing to go into a siding to meet the Auto Train. Since the curve was superelevated, meaning that the rail on the inside of the curve is lower than the outside rail, a slower moving train will put more pressure on the inside rail than will a faster moving train. The inside rail appears to have failed, Black said.

The coal train engineer did not use the train's air brakes, which apply brakes evenly throughout the train, he said. However, the engineer did engage dynamic brakes, which use the engine to slow the train, like downshifting a car. Since there is some slack in the couplers between each car, investigators want to know whether the use of dynamic brakes, which is now standard railroad practice, caused the slack throughout the train to "run in" or compress, producing forces that could have further pounded the rail.

Black said investigators are impressed with how the double-deck Superliner cars remained intact even though they were pounded with massive forces. Unlike airliners, which are built of lightweight aluminum and composite material, rail passenger cars are built of heavy steel. This factor alone often prevents deaths or major injuries in even high-speed train wrecks.

"The good story is that the cars stood up like champs," Black said.

The crash site became a sightseeing attraction Saturday afternoon as older couples and young families quietly gathered to watch as workers using heavy equipment moved the toppled cars. The site is in a wooded area of live oaks draped in Spanish moss just outside the town limits of Crescent City on U.S. 17.

Melvin and Betty Hawk of Satsuma, 14 miles north, were snapping photographs of the silver cars lying askew. They said they had watched television news reports of the derailment Thursday night and wanted to see the damage for themselves.

"When I see this, I think it's a miracle that only four people were killed," said Melvin Hawk, 72, a retired Chrysler Corp. employee originally from Indianapolis.

"We've got friends who travel like this all the time. They said it was so convenient to have your car with you," said Betty Hawk. "But I hate to think about even riding on a train right now--for a while anyway."

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