Chase, Maryland rail wreck

Chase, Maryland rail wreck

Infobox rail accident

title= Chase, Maryland rail wreck
date= 13:04, January 4, 1987
location= Chase, Maryland
coordinates= coord|39|22|35|N|76|21|25|W|
line = Northeast Corridor
cause= disregard of a signal
trains= "Virginia Service"
pax= about 600
deaths= 16
The Chase, Maryland, train wreck occurred at 1:04 p.m. on January 4, 1987, on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor main line in Chase, Maryland, at Gunpow Interlocking, about 18 miles northeast of Baltimore. Amtrak Train 94, the Colonial, from Washington, D.C., to Boston, crashed into a set of Conrail locomotives running light which had fouled the mainline. Train 94's speed at the time of the collision was estimated at about 108 mph. Fourteen passengers on the Amtrak train were killed, as well as the Amtrak engineer and lounge car attendant.

Two members of the Conrail locomotive crew tested positive for marijuana, and the engineer served four years in a Maryland prison for his role in the crash. In the aftermath, drug and alcohol procedures for train crews were overhauled by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), which is charged with rail safety. In 1991, prompted in large part by the Chase Maryland crash, the US Congress took even broader action and authorized mandatory random drug-testing for all employees in "safety-sensitive" jobs in all industries regulated by the Federal Department of Transportation including trucking, bus carriers and rail systems. Additionally, all trains operating on the high-speed Northeast Corridor are now equipped with automatic cab signalling with an automatic train stop feature. At the time, the Chase train wreck was Amtrak's deadliest crash ever. In 1993, however, the wreck at Big Bayou Canot in Alabama resulted in a much larger death toll.

Amtrak Train 94: pre-collision

Amtrak Train 94 (the "Colonial") left Washington Union Station at 12:30 PM (Eastern time) for Boston South Station. The train had 16 cars and was filled with travelers returning from the holiday season to their homes and schools for the second semester of the year. Two AEM-7 locomotives, Amtrak numbers 900 and 903, led the train; 903 was the lead locomotive. The engineer was 35-year-old Jerome Evans.

After leaving the Baltimore, Maryland Amtrak station, the train's next stop was Wilmington, Delaware. Just north of Baltimore, while still in Baltimore County, the Northeast Corridor narrows to two tracks at Gunpow Interlocking just before crossing over the Gunpowder River. The train accelerated north toward that location.

Conrail light engine move pre-collision

Ricky Lynn Gates, a Penn Central and Conrail engineer since 1973, was operating a trio of Conrail freight locomotives light (without freight cars) from Conrail's Bayview Yard just east of Baltimore bound for Enola Yard in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Gates was later determined to have violated several signal and operating rules, including a failure to properly test his cab signals as required before departure from Bayview. It was later discovered that someone had disabled the cab signal alerter whistle on lead unit CR 5044 with duct tape, muting it almost completely. Also, one of the light bulbs in the PRR-style cab signal display had been removed. Investigators believed these conditions probably existed prior to departure from Bayview and that they would have been revealed by a properly performed departure test.

Gates and his brakeman, Edward "Butch" Cromwell, had also been smoking a joint. Cromwell was responsible for calling out the signals if Gates didn't see them, but failed to do so.

The collision

As Amtrak Train 94 approached the Gunpow Interlocking near Chase, Maryland on the electrified main line, the three Conrail freight locomotives were moving north on one of the adjacent freight tracks. The locomotives should have stopped short of the junction point at Chase (Gunpow Interlocking) and waited for Amtrak #94 to pass, since the switches and signals at Gunpow were set for the passenger train to proceed at normal speed on straight track across the Gunpowder River bridge.

Speed/event recording devices indicated that the Conrail locomotives were moving at approximately 60 mph when the brakes were applied for an emergency stop. This was, Gates later claimed, when he realized that he did not have a wayside signal to proceed north at Gunpow. He was, however, moving too fast to stop before passing the signal indicating he should stop clear of the main track on which #94 was approaching.

The Conrail locomotives came to a stop on the track directly in front of #94, which approached the interlocking at 130 mph (210 km/h), an authorized track speed. With little time to react, Amtrak engineer Evans apparently saw the diesels on the line in front of him and applied the brakes for an emergency stop. The collision, however, was unavoidable.

On impact, the rearmost Conrail GE B36-7 diesel 5045 exploded and burned. It was completely destroyed down to frame and was never rebuilt. The middle unit, 5052, sustained significant damage but was later rebuilt and returned to service. Lead unit 5044 had little damage.

Amtrak's lead locomotive, AEM-7 900, was buried under the wreckage, while the other locomotive, 903, ended up among some trees on the west side of the right of way. Several Budd Company Amfleet cars were piled up, with some crushed under the pile.

Cromwell, who was on the lead locomotive with Gates, suffered a broken leg in the collision. Gates was uninjured. The Amtrak engineer, lounge car attendant and 14 passengers were killed.

The front cars on the Amtrak #94 train suffered the greatest extent of damage and were almost completely crushed. According to the NTSB, had these cars been fully occupied at the time, the death toll would have been at least 100. There were relatively few passengers on those cars, however, and so the death toll was much less. Nonetheless, some of the passengers on those front cars were burned alive before finally dying of smoke inhalation. Most of the dead were on Amtrak car 21236.

Post-collision response and cleanup

With a total passenger load of about 600 people, there was a great deal of confusion after the collision. Witnesses and neighbors ran to the smoking train and helped remove injured and dazed passengers, even before the first emergency vehicles could arrive at the rural location.

While many of the injured passengers were aided by nearby residents, some of the uninjured passengers wandered away, making it difficult for Amtrak to know the complete story.

Emergency personnel worked for many hours in the frigid cold, impeded as they were by the stainless-steel Amfleet cars' skin's resistance to the ordinary hydraulic rescue tools at their command, to extricate trapped passengers from the wreckage as helicopters and ambulances transported injured people to hospitals and trauma centers. It was over 10 hours after the collision before the final trapped persons were freed from the wreckage.

It was several days before the wrecked equipment was removed and the track and electrical propulsion system were returned to service.

Investigation, charges and conviction

At first, Gates and Cromwell denied smoking marijuana. However, they later tested positive for the substance. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation revealed that had Gates slowed down at the signals as required, he would have stopped in time. Gates and Cromwell were immediately suspended by Conrail pending an internal investigation, but resigned rather than face certain termination.

Gates was eventually charged with homicide by motor vehicle, a valid charge in Maryland due to a statute that specifies that a locomotive is a motor vehicle. Prosecutors cut a deal with Cromwell in which he turned "state's evidence" and agreed to testify against Gates. Gates was sentenced to several years in a Maryland prison. Gates' history of DWI (driving while intoxicated) convictions as well as his admission that the crew had been using marijuana while on duty led for a call to certify locomotive engineers as to their qualifications and history.

Toxicology tests on the Amtrak engineer's body returned negative and, in fact, his actions played no role in the wreck.

Changes for future prevention

As a result of the wreck, all locomotives operating o the Northeast Corridor are now required to have automatic cab signalling with an automatic train stop feature. Although common on passenger trains up until that time, cab signals combined with train stop and speed control had never been installed on freight locomotives due to potential train handling issues at high speed. Conrail subsequently developed a device called a locomotive speed limiter (LSL), a computerized device that is designed to monitor and control the rate of deceleration for restrictive signals in conjunction with cab signals. All freight locomotives operated on the Northeast Corridor must now be equipped with an operating LSL which also limits top speed to 50 mph. Previously, freight locomotives were only required to have automatic cab signals without an automatic train stop feature.

Also as a direct result of this collision, federal legislation was enacted that required the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to develop a system of federal certification for locomotive engineers. These regulations went into effect in January 1990. Since then, railroads are required by law to certify that their engineers are properly trained and qualified, and that they have no drug or alcohol impairment motor vehicle convictions for the five year period prior to certification. Another effect was that age-old Rule G ("The use of intoxicants or narcotics by employees subject to duty, or their possession or use while in duty, is prohibited." — UCOR, 1962) was revamped to:

"An employee who reports for duty under the influence of alcohol or other intoxicant, cannabis in any form, an amphetamine, a narcotic, a hallucinogenic drug, any controlled substance (as defined by federal law), or a derivative or combination of any of these, or who uses any of the foregoing while on duty, will be dismissed. Possession of any of the foregoing while on duty, or possession, use, or being under the influence of any of the foregoing while on Company or occupying facilities provided by the Company is prohibited."Source: "Tennessee Valley Railroad Operating Rules book, effective March 15, 1995"

Actually, a form of Rule G has existed in many railroad operating manuals for decades. However, the federal codification of this rule was deemed necessary to assure that any violator would be dealt with in a consistent and harsh manner. Also, anyone who passes a stop signal loses his or her FRA certification for a period not to exceed 30 days for a first offense. This is per the 49 CFR part 249.

In 1991—prompted in large part by the Chase crash—Congress authorized mandatory random drug-testing for all employees in "safety-sensitive" jobs in industries regulated by the federal Department of Transportation.

Memorial to a victim, reflection after 20 years

Ten years after the collision, the McDonogh School of Owings Mills, Maryland decided to build a 448-seat theater in memory of one of the crash's victims and alumna, 16-year-old Ceres Millicent Horn. Ceres Horn graduated from the school at age 15 and enrolled and was accepted at Princeton University at age 16 where she majored in astrophysics. Her family has never ridden a train again.

On January 4, 2007, the 20th anniversary of the crash, her family visited the theatre for the first time and attended a ceremony at the McDonogh School held in honor of Ceres Horn, Class of 1986. []

Also at the time of the 20th anniversary, the Baltimore "Sun" interviewed some of the volunteers and professionals who responded or treated injured passengers after the collision. An Amtrak signal foreman who had responded from home told the reporter: "Once you got here, your stomach just turned. It was the most devastating thing I've seen in my 30 years down here," he said. "It was a horrific scene." The man added that he didn't leave the crash site for three or four days, sometimes catching some sleep while propped against the trees lining the track. "You didn't worry about pay, you didn't worry about nothing, you just tried to help these people out," he said.

Some of the "Good Samaritans" who lived close by and helped pull passengers out immediately after the collision were later invited to the White House and their efforts acknowledged by U.S. President Ronald W. Reagan.

The Baltimore County Fire Department's medical commander at the scene 20 years earlier told the newspaper that the Amtrak crash is still being used as a case study in effective disaster response. "The reason is how the members of the professional and volunteer fire departments and the community people got together." It was, he said, "a very sad but a very proud moment" in his career. [ [ Responders, Residents Recall Deadly Maryland Train Crash — ( ] ]


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