The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating a fatal accident in which two CSX freight train conductors were struck and killed by an Amtrak train north of Union Station in Washington, D.C., late Tuesday.
“Our mission is to understand what happened, why it happened and prevent it from happening again,” NTSB member Earl Weener said Wednesday at a press conference. “We have few definitive facts at this early stage.”
The safety official said that dispatchers alerted a CSX freight train from Baltimore that a detector was triggered Tuesday night, indicating a possible problem with one or more of the train’s wheels. Detectors are placed about every 25 miles along the tracks.
Just before 11:30 p.m. north of Union Station, the train’s conductor and a conductor-trainee stopped the freight train and got out onto the tracks to check the wheels. They crossed onto an “active” track, where they were struck and killed by an Amtrak passenger train from Boston, Mr. Weener said.
A CSX engineer remained on the train and was not injured. A CSX freight crew usually consists of one conductor and one engineer.
No other employees and none of the Amtrak train’s 121 passengers were injured.
“The investigation process is necessarily complex,” Mr. Weener said. “We don’t determine the probable cause of an accident while on scene, or in the initial phase of the investigation, nor do we speculate on what the causes of the accident were at this point.”
The accident occurred near the 1200 block of New York Ave. NE, where two CSX tracks lie parallel to two Amtrak tracks. The speed limit coming in is 95 mph, but the Amtrak train was slowing down, as the speed limit drops to 30 mph approaching Union Station, officials said.
A spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, which is assisting in the investigation, said there are no federal regulations governing actions of train crew members in such circumstances.
CSX spokesman Rob Doolittle said it is typical for train crew members to exit and inspect a problem once alerted.
“When the crew is alerted to a potential mechanical issue with the train, they exit the train to inspect the train, to identify and resolve the issue,” Mr. Doolittle said.
The company said it will not release the names or other information about the employees.
“At this time the names of the involved employees are being withheld out of respect for the privacy of their families,” CSX said in a statement.
The NTSB investigation will look at the condition of the tracks, operational aspects of both trains and the dispatchers, human factors and performance, mechanical functioning and digital recordings of the incident.
The condition of the train’s wheels and brakes will be a part of the investigation, NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said.
“Every investigation is different, but generally they take a year or more to fully come up to a probable cause finding,” Mr. Weiss said.
The NTSB investigated on-scene overnight. One track was reopened at 9:30 a.m., but passing trains remained under a 10 mph speed restriction.
Amtrak announced on Twitter that riders can expect residual delays after canceling morning rush-hour trains between the District and Philadelphia.