- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 30, 2002

The timing of yesterday's Amtrak derailment in Kensington could not have been worse for the struggling national passenger railroad.

No passengers died, but images of injured passengers and a wrecked train bearing Amtrak's logo flashed across the nation on the news.

Amtrak is struggling to attract passengers and revenue, while some members of Congress want to restructure it into a shadow of the current national system. Amtrak and the Bush administration struck a funding deal June 28 to avert a looming shutdown, but there are still questions about the passenger rail's future.

Railroad industry insiders expressed concern that the derailment yesterday would hurt Amtrak unnecessarily after recent high-profile train crashes.

"With the news cameras being there, it puts it right in your face," said Mike Tetuan, spokesman for Rep. Jack Quinn, New York Republican and chairman of the House Transportation railroads subcommittee.

"When you turn on the television and you see a rail car laying on its side, of course it's going to frighten some people," Mr. Tetuan said.

The railroads panel held a hearing last month on railroad safety. Among the witnesses was Edward Hamberger, president of the Association of American Railroads.

"Several recent high-profile accidents have brought renewed attention to the topic of rail safety, and over the past few years the train-accident and employee-casualty rates while remaining at historically low levels have leveled off," Mr. Hamberger said.

The hearing was prompted by accidents such as the April 23 collision in Placentia, Calif., between a freight train and a commuter train, which killed two persons and injured 260. Only five days earlier, an Amtrak Auto Train derailed at Crescent City, Fla., killing four passengers and injuring more than 150.

In addition, the Kensington derailment is nearly walking distance from the site of the 1996 collision between an Amtrak Capitol Limited and a Maryland Rail Commuter train in Silver Spring that killed 11 persons.

Federal Railroad Administration statistics show rail safety has been improving. Between 1978 and 2001, train accidents dropped from 10,991 to 2,962.

In the previous five years, three Amtrak derailments were reported along the Northeast corridor. Two occurred at slow speeds, and none was fatal.

"The recent railroad accidents of concern to the committee must be fully examined for any lessons they can teach about future accident prevention," FRA administrator Allan Rutter told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee in July 10 testimony. "However, those accidents are not an indication of fundamental safety deficiencies in the railroad industry."

Inspectors for CSX Transportation did a visual inspection of the track in Kensington on Sunday and an ultrasound inspection in April. CSX owns the track where the derailment occurred.

Both inspections showed "no defects," said CSX spokesman Gary Sease. In addition, a 91-car freight train passed over the track segment less than an hour before the Amtrak train derailed.

With temperature yesterday of 97 degrees, speculation is strong that a heat kink suddenly distorted the track.

"High-profile derailments like this certainly catch the public's attention," Mr. Sease said.

Amtrak officials said they could not determine whether the derailment would have long-term consequences for them.

"It's too early to speculate," said spokeswoman Cecilia Cummings.

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