High at High Speed: The 1987 Chase Train Collision

Chase (Maryland) is an unincorporated community serving as a north-eastern suburb to the city of Baltimore, 77km/48mi northeast of Washington D.C. and 165km/102.5mi west of Atlantic City, New Jersey (both measurements in linear distance.

The location of Chase (Maryland) on the eastern coast of North America.

Chase is surrounded by water on three sides, with the Bird River merging into the gunpowder river just north of the community. The community is bisected by Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, the busiest passenger rail line in the United States. It stretches 735km/457mi from Washington Union Station in Washington D.C. all the way to Boston South Station in Massachusetts, possessing 2–6 tracks depending on the section. After being opened in sections between 1834 and 1917 it was electrified between 1932 and 1935. Weirdly enough, to this day the electrification uses 3 different configurations with variations in voltage and herz. Chase is an “eye of the needle” for northbound trains on the corridor, seeing the track go from 4 to 3 and then finally 2 tracks in under 460m/1500ft in order to cross the dual-track bridge over the gunpowder river.

The approximate site of the accident seen from above today.

Travelling northbound on the right-hand tracks from Conrail’s Bayview Yard just east of Baltimore to Enloa Yard near Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) was a pack of three Conrail-owned GE B36–7 diesel locomotives. Leading the pack was unit number 5044, followed by 5052 and 5045. Measuring 20.4m/67ft in length at 117.5 metric tons each of these locomotives had an output of 2700kw/3600hp, allowing them to reach speeds of up to 113kph/70mph. When they were introduced into service with the Philadelphia-based railroad company in the mid-1980s they were among the more powerful locomotives on the market, being mostly used for fast container trains. The locomotives delivered to Conrail featured a whistle in the cab that warned drivers if they ran a red signal as well as an indicator-light showing the next signal’s status ahead of time. Their bright all-blue paintjob made them easy to distinguish from other providers’ locomotives, most of which employed several colors to create a livery.

Conrail 5045, the rear of the three locomotives, photographed a year before the accident.

Following behind the Conrail-train was Amtrak service #94, the so-called “Colonial”. Introduced in June 1976 the Colonial was an intercity passenger service running from Newport News via Washington D.C., Philadelphia and New York City to Boston. On the day of the accident the train consisted of 11 “Amfleet” passsenger cars, Amtrak’s standard single level passenger cars introduced in 1975. Weighting 50 metric tons at 26m/85ft long each Amfleet-car could carry up to 84 passengers at up to 201kph/125mph. The train also held one older car from Amtrak’s Heritage Fleet, a number of older cars from Amtrak’s early days restored and upgraded to electric heating (rather than the original steam-powered heating systems). Due to its different construction the speed of the Heritage car was limited to 169kph/105mph. Most passengers were travelers returning home from the holiday season over new year’s eve heading home or back to schools for the new semester. The report lists 660 passengers at the time of the accident.

An Amfleet passenger car identical to those making up most of the train photographed in 2015.

Pulling the Colonial were two Amtrak AEM-7 locomotives, numbers 903 (leading) and 900. Unit 900 actually was the prototype of the model, and had been used by Amtrak for testing prior to entering regular service. Introduced in 1980 the EMD AEM-7 is a twin-cab four-axle electric locomotive measuring 15.59m/51ft in length at 92 metric tons. The 201kph/125mph fast locomotive was part of Amtrak’s effort to end years of decline in US rail service by making use of the spreading electrification of their lines. After converting freight locomotives for passenger service proved unsatisfactory Amtrak turned to the European railway market, borrowing a Swedish Rc4 1166 and a French CC 21000 for trials (which must’ve been quite the odd sight for American railway enthusiasts). While neither locomotive was directly adopted the Swedish locomotive became the basis for the new AEM7. The locomotive’s unusual design for an American locomotive (extremely compact, being 20 feet shorter than its predecessor, rectangular “boxy” body design and a cab at either end) soon found the locomotive nicknamed the “toaster”.

The leading Amtrak AEM-7 #903 (left) photographed at some point in the early 1980s and #900, the former prototype, photographed in 1983 (right).

On the 4th of January 1987 at 1:20pm Mister Gates is driving a set of three Conrail GE B36–7 locomotives to the Enola Yard to pick up a train. Him and his brakeman, Mister Cromwell, are in a good mood as they make their way towards the Chase community at 97kph/60mph, heading for the so-called Gunpow interlocking where their freight track will merge into the main two tracks to cross a bridge. The good mood probably partially comes from the marijuana cigarettes the two men were smoking while at the controls of the locomotives. Following some distance behind them is Amtrak #94, the “Colonial”, driven by 35 years old Mister Evans. Pulled by two of the essentially brand new AEM-7 locomotives the Colonial races down the tracks at 201–193kph/120–125mph, quickly closing in on the Conrail-locomotives (which are running on the freight-track to the immediate right of the Colonial’s track).

Gunpow interlocking as it’s shown in the report, giving Mr. Evans’ perspective. The Conrail-locomotives were on the second track from the right.

The interlocking was set up for the Colonial, with the Conrail locomotives receiving red signals as they were intended to let the passenger train pass. The Conrail-locomotives ran the red signals, but a signal whistle in the cab of the leading locomotive failed to sound and a signal indicator didn’t indicate “red” either. As such the locomotives passed the red main signal at full speed, triggering an emergency stop. Gates later testified that that was the moment when he realized that he wasn’t sure if he’d seen a green signal. Usually the brakeman is required to call out signals to the driver and vice versa, but the two men neglected to do this. As the main signals weren’t meant to be approached at full speed (with the indicator signal ahead of the main signal ordering reduced speed) there wasn’t enough space to stop and the locomotives slid into the main track before coming to a stop. Had Gates reacted properly to either signal or if the brakeman had called out the signals it’s likely the Conrail-locomotives would’ve stopped in time. Evans most likely saw the bright blue locomotives move into his path, but at the speed his train was going at there was nothing he could do to avoid the imminent collision. He still triggered an emergency stop, presumably thinking that any speed he could shave off would lessen the consequences of the crash.

At 1:30pm the leading locomotive of the Colonial struck the rear, stationary Conrail locomotive (#5045) at 174kph/108mph. The collision killed Evans on impact and compressed the Conrail-locomotive, bursting the fuel tanks and causing an explosion as AEM-7 #903 was deflected off the frame of the locomotive and derailed to the left. AEM-7 #900 was buried under the rear two Conrail locomotives and its own passenger cars, causing severe damage to the middle Conrail-locomotive (#5052) and destroying the prototype. The leading Conrail-locomotive was violently jolted forward but sustained little damage as the Colonial’s leading train cars piled up behind it, some of which being crushed by the train’s weight. The entire passenger train derailed, with most cars zigzagging across the tracks behind the blockade formed by the locomotives’ wreckage. Evans, the lounge car attendant and 14 passengers were killed in the collision, with Cromwell and 163 passengers being injured.

Mere minutes after the crash local residents came to the survivor’s aid, alerted by the noise of the crash and smoke from the fire. They managed to help dazed and injured passengers off the train and provide first aid even before professional responders arrived. It is assumed that some lightly injured or uninjured survivors wandered off after the crash, making the passenger number an estimate. Once professional responders arrived they found their own rescue effort slowed down by the Amfleet cars’ stainless steel skins, which proved rather resistant to ordinary hydraulic rescue equipment. With Helicopters and ambulances constantly going back and forth between hospitals responders worked tirelessly in the frigid cold to access trapped survivors, it would take over 10 hours for the last survivor to be rescued. While the collision was without doubt a tragedy it could have been much worse, with most of the forward cars, which took the brunt of the damage, being empty or nearly empty at the time of the accident. The NTSB later estimated that, had the train been at capacity, the death toll would have likely been ten times as high.

Responders working their way through the wreckage. You can make out part of AEM-7 #900 on the right.

When interrogated following the accident both Gates and Cromwell initially denied having consumed alcohol or any drugs, a statement that was proven to be a lie when both men’s drug tests came back positive for marijuana. With the drug likely altering their perception of speed and distance as well as impacting their ability to focus/concentrate the investigators noted early on that the fact that both men were high at the time of the accident played a significant part in the events. However, they soon found out that there were further elements in the chain of events. The signal-whistle on #5044 had been taped up, essentially muting it especially when taking the noise of three diesel locomotives running at high speed into account. This wasn’t the first time this had been observed, with the whistle, which was known to be very irritating and loud, having also been muted with a rag on a locomotive involved in an accident in Wyoming in 1979. However, when the unit was sent to the FBI the investigators there found themselves unable to find out who had muted the whistle at which point, as there apparently were no fingerprints on the tape covering it up. Further examination of the leading Conrail-locomotive revealed that the signal indicator was missing the bulb that would light up for low-speed approach (the kind of indication it would have shown ahead of the red signal), with the bulb replaced the indicator worked flawlessly. Similar to the taped up whistle, it was never determined who had removed the bulb at which point in time. Gates stated that he had definitely performed the mandatory check of all cab-systems ahead of departing on the fatal journey, which is unlikely given the two glaring defects found after the accident. Things took yet another turn for the worse when investigators took Gates back to #5044 to re-enact the procedure and found out that the deadman’s pedal (a device meant to ensure the driver pays attention) was disabled. Investigators failed to proof that Gates had disabled the pedal, though.

The center section of the Colonial, the second car from the right is the “heritage fleet” car.

The investigation also proved that the Colonial had technically been speeding, as the speed it was travelling at when it approached the site of the accident was fine for an Amfleet-train but exceeded the maximum speed of the heritage car that was included in the train on the day of the accident. The Colonial’s conductor testified that he had informed Evans of the unusual car being part of the train that day and the resulting lower speed limit, it’s assumed that Evans forgot and went with the usual speed out of habit. However, calculations by the NTSB determined that even if the Colonial had adhered to the lower speed limit of 169kph/105mph the outcome would have been by all means identical, with the collision having been so violent either way that the difference in speed would have had an insignificant influence on the aftermath.

A crane assisting in the recovery of the wreckage a week after the accident.

Maryland law considers a locomotive a motor vehicle similar to cars and trucks, and as such Gates found himself charged with manslaughter by locomotive, for which he received a five year jail sentence plus a year of probation before being sentenced to another 3 years of jailtime for lying to the NTSB. The USA’s legal system adds up sentences, meaning Gates saw himself faced with 8 years in prison. Cromwell cut a deal with the prosecutors, giving him immunity after he testified against Gates. Both men had been suspended by Conrail immediately after the accident pending an internal investigation and resigned rather than face certain termination. Gates was released from jail after 4 years in 1992 and found work as a substance abuse counselor. In 1993 he gave an interview where he stated that without him smoking joints the tragedy would’ve never happened, stating he most likely had a subconscious desire to get back to Baltimore as soon as possible so he could “get properly high” he rushed safety procedures. It also became public at this point that he had a history of driving trains while on drugs.

The leading (left) and middle (right) Conrail locomotives photographed after the crash.

Following the collision new rules were introduced requiring all locomotives to be fitted with signal indicators in the cab that could also control/limit a train’s speed, something not widely used at the time especially on freight locomotives (like the Conrail-ones involved in the accident). This device will automatically reduce a train’s speed if a “slow approach”-signal is passed. The accident happened in part because the Conrail-locomotives passed the red signal at full speed, leaving insufficient space for stopping, with the new limiter this can no longer happen. A new speed limit for freight locomotives was also introduced, making it impossible for the locomotives to exceed 80kph/50mph on the Corridor. Furthermore a mandatory federal certification for train drivers (called engineers in the USA) was introduced effective January 1990, which included that applicants cannot have any drug or alcohol-related charges regarding motor vehicles in the 5 years prior to the application to become a train driver. The old “Rule G” (The use of intoxicants or narcotics by employees subject to duty, or their possession or use while in duty, is prohibited.) was also expanded to include that employees caught intoxicated or drugged on railway premises must be sent home and that posession of alcohol or other drugs on railway premises or in buildings/areas owned by the employer is prohibited. Lastly, the crash was the main cause for Congress to authorize random mandatory drug testing for all employees in “safety-sensitive” DOT-regulated jobs in 1991.

AEM-7 #903, the leading unit from the accident, photographed in July 1988.

The rear Conrail locomotive was completely destroyed in the accident and ensuing fire, as were both Amtrak-locomotives and several passenger cars. The two leading Conrail-locomotives were actually repaired and returned to service with Conrail. In the late 1990s Conrail was aquired by CSX and Norfolk Southern Railway, with locomotive #5052 (the middle unit from the accident) going to CSX as 5805 before eventually being sold to a different rail service provider in Brasil. The AEM-7 was an important part of Amtrak’s fleet for many years, with the company buying a total of 54 by 1988. After refurbishing them around the year 2000 Amtrak started looking for replacements in the late 2000s, buying 70 Siemens ACS-64 to replace the aging toasters. With the new locomotives entering service by 2014 the writing was on the wall, and Amtrak’s AEM-7 saw their final run on the 18th of June 2016, 2 years ahead of the last operator ceasing operation of the type. Today 3 units remain, one in maintenance-service with SEPTA (a public transport company in Philadelphia) and 2 former Amtrak-units are on display in museums in Illinois and Pennsylvania. The “Colonial” was renamed the “Old Dominion” in late 1992 when it was cut back from Boston to NYC, effectively ending its 26 year existance. Today its connection is handled by a few different trains under differing names.

The accident remained the worst railway accident in Amtrak’s history for 6 years, until being surpassed by the 1993 Big Bayou Canot Bridge Derailment in Alabama, which claimed 47 lives. While the new rules and requirements are meant to avoid a repetition of the accident it also helps in a different way, with the Baltimore County Fire Department using it as a case study for effective disaster response and productive involvement of civilians when training new firefighters.

The former Conrail #5052, now wearing the CSX-number, photographed in 2001.

Ten years after the collision the McDonogh School of Owings Mills in Maryland built a 448 seat theater named after 16 years old Ceres Millicent Horn, an alumni of the school and victim of the crash. On January 4th of 2007, the 20th anniversary of the crash, Horn’s parents visited the theater for the first time to attend a memorial ceremony held in honor of their daughter.

A snippet from a news-broadcast, showing aerial footage of the wreckage.

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