- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 21, 2001

Train derailments — such as the CSX Corp. accident that sparked a still-smoldering fire and paralyzed downtown Baltimore on Wednesday — have increased 18 percent in the past four years, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.
Federal officials blame poor track maintenance and inadequate inspections by the railroads and government agencies.
CSX was singled out by the agency for a recent safety audit after a series of derailments. The agency accused the Richmond company of reducing the number of its inspectors and increasing the amount of track the remaining inspectors were required to check.
Company spokesman Rob Gould said yesterday that the Baltimore accident was caused by a derailment but refused to give further details. "That's under investigation by the [National Transportation Safety Board]."
Two firefighters who were inspecting the tunnel yesterday where the train derailed were overcome by heat that reached as high as 1,500 degrees. They were sent to the University of Maryland Medical Center's Shock Trauma Unit with non-life-threatening injuries.
The accident has disrupted rail traffic along the busy Washington-Boston corridor, slowed traffic to a crawl throughout downtown Baltimore, hampered telecommunications and Internet service because of damaged fiber-optic lines in the tunnel and forced officials to issue public warnings about possible toxins being released into the air.
The Baltimore Orioles postponed last night's baseball game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the third consecutive day the team has had to do so.
As of last night, 10 of the train's 60 cars had been removed, and officials yesterday drained acid from two cars through a manhole cover from the street above.
Mr. Gould said he did not believe lax safety procedures by CSX contributed to the accident. The train was carrying several hazardous materials, including hydrochloric acid, when it derailed in the narrow, 19th-century tunnel.
"Our safety is second to none," Mr. Gould said. "Last year, we transported 463,000 rail car loads and had only 15 incidents where there was a release of a hazardous-material commodity."
The track was inspected twice in the days before the accident. No problems were reported, he said. The track is inspected weekly, which normally involves inspectors riding or walking the rails.
The railroad administration did its own inspections of some of CSX's 23,000 miles of track and found that some CSX inspection reports "did not reflect the conditions" discovered by federal inspectors.
"The vast majority of track defects detected during the audit could have been detected and repaired with better track inspection and track-maintenance practices," the agency said in an audit released in March.
The safety problems along the CSX lines follow a nationwide trend. In 1997, there were 1,741 derailments. Last year, there were 2,059.
Recent derailments include Amtrak's California Zephyr, which ran off the track last month in Iowa with 257 passengers. The accident occurred on track where a defect was found, but supposedly had been repaired, the National Transportation Safety Board said.
In December, a Norfolk Southern freight train snarled rail traffic between Chicago and New York when it derailed. Officials blamed a broken track.
The increase in derailments roughly follows consolidations in the railroad industry that included the 1996 merger of Union Pacific Railroad with Southern Pacific Railroad and the 1998 takeover of the East Coast's Conrail by CSX and Norfolk Southern Railroad.
In both cases, the railroads reported massive delays from congestion as they tried to integrate their operations. Unions complained of derailments and other safety problems that endangered workers. In 1998, the Surface Transportation Board — the railroad industry's government regulatory agency — conducted two hearings on safety problems.
CSX officials denied any connection between their takeover of Conrail and safety problems.
"I don't think there's a link between capacity and the cause of this incident," Mr. Gould said. "I believe the service problems are over, and we are starting to see some of the benefits accrue from the takeover. We invested heavily in capacity improvements. We're starting to see those benefits."
Congress has taken up the issue of increasing numbers of derailments.
"When those kinds of numbers are up, rail passengers and the general public could be at risk," Rep. Jack Quinn, New York Republican, said at a House Transportation and Infrastructure railroads subcommittee hearing last month.
Mr. Quinn supports using federal funds to help pay for railroad-track improvements, which railroads currently pay for themselves.
"The railroads are strapped for cash," said Mike Tetuan, Mr. Quinn's spokesman. "They need some money to pay for improvements. Some lines haven't been replaced in a long time."
CSX posted profits of $565 million on net sales of $8.2 billion last year.
For the first quarter ended March 31, it reported profits of $20 million on sales of $2 billion, compared with $29 million in profits on revenue of $2 billion a year earlier.
The most heavily traveled portions of track require the greatest maintenance, such as the Northeast corridor, federal officials said.
"Obviously, this is a very dense corridor," Mr. Gould said.
The Federal Railroad Administration also has been criticized for lax safety procedures. In January, a Department of Transportation inspector general's investigation of the agency's safety program reported "shortfalls in enforcement of identified safety deficiencies, such as widespread track defects."
The agency uses 400 federal and 150 agency-trained state inspectors to check 230,000 miles of track. The railroad industry is supposed to monitor safety with its own inspectors.
Much of the railroad agency's efforts have been targeted on reducing deaths and injuries along the most heavily traveled rail routes. Between 1998 and 2000, one death and 45 injuries were blamed on rail accidents caused by track defects. In the previous three years, there were four deaths and 116 injuries for similar reasons.

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