- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 31, 2002

A machine used to maintain the CSX Transportation railroad track bed in Kensington broke during routine maintenance July 25 at almost the same place where an Amtrak train derailed Monday and injured 101 persons, the National Transportation Safety Board said yesterday.
The Amtrak engineer saw the misaligned track 500 to 600 feet before striking it but was unable to stop, the NTSB said.
Investigators are checking into reports that afternoon heat contorted the track.
However, the track segment where the Amtrak train derailed would have withstood the heat without buckling if it had been properly maintained, railroad track engineers say.
The temperature was 97 degrees, but the NTSB said the temperature on the track reached 118 degrees.
"Good track should be able to withstand those force levels with no problem," said Andrew Kish, a research engineer for the Department of Transportation's Volpe Center in Cambridge, Mass. He researches track safety under Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) sponsorship.
Track maintenance workers used a "tamping" machine to pound ballast, or rocks, into the track bed during a routine maintenance procedure on July 25, the NTSB said. Ballast helps anchor tracks into position.
At almost exactly the place where the track contorted, the tamping machine broke down, the NTSB said. The maintenance workers then continued tamping the ballast by hand, with uncertain results.
As the Amtrak train approached Monday, Mr. Kish estimates the right track was 18 inches out of alignment. NTSB investigators found that the track was unaligned by 30 inches but did not know whether the derailment was responsible for it. The investigation will take at least six to eight months.
Yesterday, CSX Transportation, which owns and maintains the tracks where the train derailed, issued a "heat order" requiring trains to reduce their authorized speeds by 10 mph between 1 p.m. and 9 p.m. for the rest of the summer.
"Until we know more facts about the recent derailment and are able to determine if there is a better solution, we're taking the most conservative course," said CSX Transportation Vice President Alan Crown.
Amtrak, which removed its 11 derailed passenger cars from the track yesterday, leases the right of way.
FRA regulations mandate that railroad tracks be able to withstand extreme temperatures without bending.
Typically, tracks are installed during the hottest days of the year to account for heat as a factor in track expansion, Mr. Kish said. The ballast and ties are supposed to be regularly maintained to secure the rail alignment.
Afterward, maintenance workers are supposed to regularly check the track alignment for deformities.
"All track has to be maintained to conform to a certain lateral alignment," Mr. Kish said. The FRA sets the standards.
"The track will expand as the heat increases, and it will shrink in the cold in the winter. When the track is installed, it should accommodate those kinds of temperatures," said David Wormley, dean of the mechanical engineering department at Pennsylvania State University. He has published research papers on railroad-equipment performance.
Showers, of the kind that hit the Washington area last weekend, can cause shifting of the track bed, Mr. Wormley said. Heat would add to the tendency of the rails to shift position.
Nevertheless, Mr. Wormley said, the ties and track bed should have held the track in place without bending.
"It could be a maintenance issue," Mr. Wormley said. "If a kink developed and [the engineer] saw it, and it was influenced by the temperature differential, it certainly could be influenced by track maintenance."
However, CSX spokesman Gary Sease said the track had been visually inspected a day earlier. In April, an ultrasound test had been done on the track segment to detect internal faults. Both inspections revealed "no defects." In addition, a 91-car freight train passed incident-free over the same track segment about 45 minutes before the Amtrak derailment.
No Amtrak or commuter trains operating on CSX's East Coast network derailed in 2000 or 2001 because of buckled track, CSX officials said.
In 2000, the FRA compelled CSX to participate in a safety-compliance agreement after the railroad was criticized for poor and potentially unsafe track conditions. The agreement expired May 1.
The FRA began a review of CSX's track-safety program in July 1997 after several derailments. One of them involved a CSX train that derailed near Rosslyn and sideswiped a passing Amtrak train. Although no one was injured, the damage was extensive.
"FRA found that track inspections were not being performed adequately to detect exceptions to Track Safety Standards, and that CSXT management was not overseeing the inspection program to ensure quality inspections were performed and appropriate remedial actions were taken," a report on the 1997 review said.
It also cast doubt on the freight railroad's record-keeping of track abnormalities.
"The reviews revealed that in approximately 20 percent of all cases, CSXT records did not accurately reflect the existing track conditions," the FRA reported. "Among the defective track conditions omitted from track inspection records were defective cross ties, fouled ballast, defective rail fasteners and turnout-related defects."
A turnout-related defect refers to track distortions, such as a heat kink.
CSX operates the largest freight railroad network on the East Coast through 23 states, the District and two Canadian provinces. It covers 23,320 miles of track. CSX Transportation is the railroad business unit of Richmond-based CSX Corp.
Overall, train accidents have declined 12 percent since 1990, according to the Association of American Railroads.
Jeff Barnes contributed to this report.


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