1987 Maryland train collision

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1987 Maryland train collision
Aerial view of the Colonial after the accident
Aerial view of the Colonial after the accident
Date January 4, 1987
Time 1:30 PM
Location Chase, Baltimore County, Maryland
Country United States
Rail line Northeast Corridor
Operator Amtrak
Type of incident Collision
Cause Engineer error; Noncompliance with NORAC Rule 292, Absolute Stop Signal
Trains 2
Passengers 660
Deaths 16
Injuries 164
Northeast Corridor at Gunpow Interlocking
Gunpowder River
Switch #12
3 2 1 A

The 1987 Maryland train collision occurred at 1:30 pm on January 4, 1987, on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor main line in the Chase community in eastern Baltimore County, Maryland, United States, at Gunpow Interlocking, about 18 miles (29 km) northeast of Baltimore. Amtrak train 94, the Colonial (now part of the Northeast Regional, from Washington, D.C., to Boston), crashed into a set of Conrail locomotives running lite, and which had fouled the mainline. Train 94's speed at the time of the collision was estimated at about 108 miles per hour (174 km/h). Fourteen passengers on the Amtrak train were killed, as well as the Amtrak engineer and lounge car attendant.

The Conrail locomotive crew failed to stop at the signals before Gunpow Interlocking, and it was determined that the accident would have been avoided had they done so. Additionally, they tested positive for marijuana. 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 United States Congress took even broader action and authorized mandatory random drug-testing for all employees in "safety-sensitive" jobs in all industries regulated by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) 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. Several safety issues were identified with Amfleet cars as well.[1]

At the time, the wreck was the deadliest in Amtrak's history. It was later surpassed in 1993, during the wreck at Big Bayou Canot in Alabama that killed 47.

Movements of the trains pre-collision

Amtrak Train 94

Amtrak Train 94 (the Colonial) left Washington Union Station at 12:30 pm (Eastern time) for Boston South Station. The train had 12 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, numbered 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 four-track Northeast Corridor narrows to two tracks at Gunpow Interlocking just before crossing over the Gunpowder River. The train accelerated north toward that location.

Conrail lite engine move

Ricky Lynn Gates, a Penn Central and Conrail engineer since 1973, was operating a trio of Conrail freight locomotives (all GE B36-7 models) lite (without freight cars) from Conrail's Bayview Yard just east of Baltimore bound for Enola Yard near 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 #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, were also smoking a marijuana cigarette. Marijuana can alter one's sense of time and impair the ability to perform tasks that require concentration.[2] Cromwell was responsible for calling out the signals if Gates missed them, but failed to do so.

The collision

As Amtrak Train 94 approached the Gunpow Interlocking near the Chase community on the electrified main line, the three Conrail freight locomotives were moving north on one of the adjacent freight tracks. Before the adjacent tracks reached the bridge at the river, they merged into the two through tracks that cross the bridge.

While the tracks and interlocking plant at this location are signalized to alert locomotive engineers when the interlocking switches are set for through track train movement, the switches are not designed to de-rail a locomotive or train that runs through them when they are aligned for through track train movement.

In the case of the accident, the interlocking plant was properly set for through track movement only, so as to allow the Amtrak train to pass the freight locomotives (which should have been stopped on the side tracks) on the through tracks onto and over the bridge. The freight locomotive engineers ignored the stop signals in their locomotive cab, and at trackside, visible to them from the cab of their locomotive.

Speed/event recording devices indicated that the Conrail locomotives were moving at approximately 60 miles per hour (97 km/h) when their brakes were applied for an emergency stop, after they had passed the trackside signals. 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 120 mph (190 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. However, the collision was unavoidable.

On impact, the rearmost Conrail diesel, GE B36-7 #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.

One of Amtrak's AEM-7s, #900, was buried under the wreckage, while the lead 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 Lead Service 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. However they were nearly empty awaiting additional holiday passengers en route who would have boarded the train at stations further north. 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. 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 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 people 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

The interior of Conrail GE B36-7 #5044. The bulb for the "approach" aspect of the cab signal is missing.

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. It also determined that Gates and Cromwell's marijuana use was the "probable cause" of the accident.[3] Gates and Cromwell were immediately suspended by Conrail pending an internal investigation, but resigned rather than face certain termination.

Gates was eventually charged with manslaughter by locomotive; under Maryland law a locomotive is a motor vehicle. Prosecutors cut a deal with Cromwell in which he agreed to testify against Gates in return for immunity. Gates was sentenced to five years in state prison and one year's probation, and was later sentenced to an additional three years on federal charges of lying to the NTSB. 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.[3]

Toxicology tests on the Amtrak engineer's body returned negative and, in fact, his actions served only to reduce the severity of the wreck by slowing his train from 120 to 108 mph (193 to 174 km/h).

Gates was released from prison in 1992 after serving four years, and now works as an abuse counselor. In a 1993 interview with the Baltimore Sun, Gates said the accident would have never happened if not for the marijuana. He also revealed he'd smoked marijuana on the job several times.[3]

Changes for future prevention

As a result of the wreck, all locomotives operating on 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 (80 km/h). 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 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 less than 30 days for a first offense. This is per 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 DOT.

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 since.[4]

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 their daughter.[5]

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 President Ronald 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.[6]

See also


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