Wednesday, September 17, 2014

War Stories: Episode 28 - "The End of Innocence"

Trains were always fun.  Watching them go by as a kid, with my dad.  Model trains in the basement.  Train rides as part of vacations and trips.  This was all fun.

Then I got a job with the railroad.  It was serious work, but still fun.  I got to see trains, climb on them and ride them.

Then, January 4, 1987, it all changed. I wasn't even at work or  near a train.  I was home watching and NFL playoff game.

The game was interrupted for breaking news.  There had been a train collision at Chase Maryland.  People were dead.  The helicopter pictures showed a horrendous scene.  The northbound Colonial travelling over 100 mph had struck three stationary Conrail locomotives just north of Gunpow interlocking on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor.  There were fourteen passengers and two Amtrak employees dead and scores injured.  It overwhelmed the local residents and EMS.  It would have been much worse had the lead coach been occupied.  It was completely crushed.

More detail here:

This was not fun.  This was depressing.

Details started coming out.  The Conrail engineer had been smoking marijuana.  The cab signal system on his locomotive had a muffled whistle and missing bulb - which he should have caught when he tested the system prior to departure.  He had blown by an approach signal, past a cab signal cut point and through a stop signal, trailing through the interlocking switches and into the path of the Amtrak train.

At work on Monday, the mood was somber, but the wheels of change had started to turn.  This couldn't be allowed to happen again.

Some background, first.

At the turn of the 20th Century, railroads were not a safe industry.  Death and injury to employees and passengers was not uncommon.  Technological improvements to safety were developed and implemented as time went by, often with some pushing from government in reaction to particularly gruesome train wrecks.  Steel passenger cars replaced wood ones after a particularly deadly, firey passenger train wreck, for example.

Advance signal systems became available and railroads slowly installed them.  Train stop systems that could apply the airbrakes if a train went past a stop signal appeared.  Later, more sophisticated systems that could show the current signal indication inside of the locomotive's cab were developed.  These systems were known "cab signals", generally. An added feature was called "train stop".  If train went by a more restrictive signal, a whistle would sound, and if the engineer didn't acknowledge it by pressing a pedal, the brakes would apply.

The Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) installed quite a bit of this inductive cab signalling with train stop on their railroad, including the entire railroad from New York City to Washington DC, the part we now call Amtrak's North East Corridor (NEC).   Later, they added an additional feature called "speed control" to it.  It not only required the engineer to acknowledge the signal change, it required him to apply the brake and stay under the speed for that particular signal indication.

Nice explanation and demonstration at 3:40.

The PRR eventually installed it on every passenger train and electric locomotive.  This meant that nearly every train on the NEC was covered with speed control in the 1960s.  This condition lasted until roughly 1980.

Then, three things happened.

One is that Conrail stopped using electric locomotives (more here

Second, trains got longer and a penalty brake application from the train stop system, under certain conditions, might cause a derailment.  So, Conrail took the train stop function from the cab signal system.

Third, speeds and number of trains on the NEC were increased.  First, Metroliners were allowed 110-120 mph.  Later, in the early 1980s, tracks were improved and new electric locomotives and coaches were acquired and speeds were raised up to 125 mph on long stretches for nearly all Amtrak passenger trains.  Amtrak increased the number of trains as ridership responded to the faster trip times.

Add in a rather laissez-faire attitude to drug and alcohol use at that time and you had a deadly mix. (More here

The result was, in the 1980s, Conrail diesel hauled trains were moving up and down the NEC without the benefit of train stop or speed control, mixing with an ever increasing number of faster passenger trains. During the dark years of the "railroad crisis" and Penn Central bankrupcy, the world had apparently forgotten what the PRR had known.

And a price was paid.

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