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Railroad Officials: No Evidence Warning Signals Failed in Fiery Crash

June 27, 1996

ROCKVILLE, Md. (AP) _ Investigators looking into an Amtrak-commuter train collision that killed 11 people in February found no evidence that a crucial trackside signal malfunctioned.

The signal should have told the commuter train engineer to slow to 30 mph, half the speed his train was moving before it slammed into Amtrak’s Capitol Limited on Feb. 16 in nearby Silver Spring.

``I see no known reason that the signal would have displayed anything other than `approach,′ ″ said William Goodman of CSX, which operates the signal system from offices in Jacksonville, Fla.

An ``approach″ signal is a caution to move no faster than 30 mph while approaching the next signal on the line.

Federal Railroad Administration safety specialist Robert Murray told the National Safety Transportation Board hearing Wednesday that a series of tests on the signal system found no flaws.

There has been speculation that faulty signals might have kept the commuter train engineer from slowing as he approached a junction where the collision occurred.

The Amtrak liner was heading west from Washington on the same track as the incoming commuter train and was being switched to another track at that junction.

According to safety board records the commuter train passed the caution signal about three miles from the junction, then stopped at Kensington, Md. It then resumed speed, accelerating to 63 mph before the engineer saw the oncoming Amtrak and slammed on the brakes, records show.

A second signal between Kensington and the junction where the collision occurred was removed in 1993. CSX officials said that was done when the signals along the track were repositioned. The removed signal was too close to the junction to permit a large train to stop, explained David Orr of CSX, so it was removed and replaced by the new signal before Kensington.

Although there have been a number of complaints about signal problems since the crash, Murray said that might be ``just a reaction to the accident.″

The safety board opened three days of hearings into the crash Wednesday, with passengers describing their desperate struggle to escape the flames.

``Everybody was trying to open the windows, kicking and elbowing, but it just wouldn’t work,″ testified Damien Benitez, a federal Job Corps student headed to Washington from West Virginia at the time of the accident. He finally got out through a hole in the side of a second car.

Eight of his friends on the commuter train and three commuter train crew members died in the crash. Many of the deaths were blamed on fire, with passengers unable to locate and open emergency exits.

Amtrak engineer Donald Noble testified that he accelerated _ hoping to make it onto the junction crossover _ when he saw the commuter train heading for him.

Noble said he hoped to get far enough onto the crossover that the commuter train would hit one of seven baggage cars behind his locomotive. But his effort didn’t work. The commuter train struck an Amtrak locomotive, rupturing a fuel tank and causing a deadly fire.