MARC did it: The 1996 Silver Spring (USA) Train Collision
Silver Spring is a city of 81015 people (as of 2020) in the northeastern USA, located in the federal state of Maryland 12km/7.5mi north of Washington D.C. and 50km/31mi southwest of Baltimore (both measurements in linear distance).
Silver Spring lies on the Metropolitan Subdivision, an 85km/53mi double-tracked electrified rail line connecting Washington D.C. with Weverton (Maryland). Opening in 1873 the line is owned by CSX Transportation, a Florida-based freight service provider, since 1987, who allow other rail service providers to use the line for a fee. The route is used by everything from freight services and commuter trains to long distance express services.
The trains involved
The Amtrak No. 29 “Capitol Limited” is an overnight express passenger service between Washington D.C. and Chicago (Illinois) established in 1981. On the day of the accident it consisted of two locomotives, seven baggage cars, two passenger cars, a dining car and four more passenger cars at the back of the train. At the time of the accident the Capitol Limited carried 164 passengers and a crew of 18 including the locomotive crew. Leading the train at the time of the accident was Amtrak locomotive number 255, an EMD F40PHR. Introduced in 1975 with commuter trains in mind the F40PHR is a four-axle diesel locomotive measuring 17.1m/56.2ft in length at a weight of around 123 metric tons (slight differences depending on the version of the locomotive). The locomotives can reach 166kph/103mph thanks to V16 diesel engine, enough even for express passenger services.
Helping #255 with the heavy train was Amtrak locomotive number 811, a General Electric P40DC. The P40DC is the first generation of General Electric’s “Genisis”-series and was introduced in 1993. The four-axle diesel-electric P40DC can be easily distinguished from most american diesel locomotives, featuring a distinctly “sleek” one box design compared to the usual more “rugged” design of american diesel locomotives with a separate hood out front and walkways around the locomotive’s body. The locomotives measure 21m/69ft in length at a weight of 122 metric tons and were developed specifically for Amtrak who were looking for locomotives that fit the low profile tunnels on the northeast corridor, which limited the height to 4.37m/14.4ft. The streamlined design also aids the locomotives in their performance, allowing them to easily achieve a top speed of 166kph/103mph.
Coming the other way was MARC (Maryland Area Rail Commuter) number 286, a commuter train from Brunswick to Washington D.C. The train consisted of three passenger cars including a cab car from which the driver controlled the locomotive that was located at the back of the train for the trip into Washington. The train carried 20 passengers and three crew members at the time of the accident and was pushed by MARC locomotive number 73, an EMD G39H-2 diesel locomotive. The G39H-2 is a four-axle diesel locomotive specifically developed for MARC-trains, being based off the stronger GP40-series but being fitted with a weaker engine and a different generator for head-end-power (the electricity the locomotive feeds to the train cars). The locomotives and cars entered service in the late 1980s.
On the 16th of February 1996 Amtrak’s Capitol Limited departs Washington Union Station at 5:25pm, heading northwest for Chicago. As the train heads through Silver Spring it is directed onto the Subdivision’s track 2, overtaking a stopped freight train occupying track 1. At the same time MARC 286 is driving down track 2 of the subdivision in the opposite direction, having left Brunswick station at 4:30pm. It is a cold winter day, with the conditions later described as windy snowfall and around 130mm/5in deep accumulation on the ground at the site of the accident.
By 5:30pm both trains are approaching Georgetown Junction, a set of points allowing trains to switch between the two tracks. Just ahead of the junction MARC 286 stops at Kensington station at approximately 5:35pm. An approach signal for the junction, located ahead of Kensington station, had informed the driver of the commuter train that the next signal would be red and that the section ahead of it carries a 48kph/30mph speed limit. Kensington station is a so-called flag stop, meaning the MARC-trains only stop at the small station after waiting passengers announce their intend to board the incoming train in some way This can be done by simply buying a ticket which leads to the train in question being notified, by calling a dispatcher from a provided phone, or as little as pressing a “stop please” button at the platform.
After departing Kensington station, now carrying 20 passengers, MARC 286’s driver disregards the speed limit and accelerates past 100kph/62mph. The approaching commuter train is spotted by the driver of the Amtrak-train, which is about to begin transferring into track 1, just seconds later. He knows that a collision is imminent, and that he cannot do anything to avoid it. The driver of MARC 286 likely realized his fatal error at 5:38pm, seeing the Amtrak-train through the snowfall, and triggered an emergency stop as the train is speeding towards the Capitol Limited at 106kph/66mph. The commuter train manages to slow to 61kph/38mph before slamming into the left hand side of Amtrak #255’s front end at 7:39pm. The cab car has nothing to offer against the heavy diesel locomotive, which cuts its way through three quarters of the cab car’s length before derailing to the right. The sudden deceleration of the cab car causes the second car to run into the back of it, suffering severe damage as the train car is compressed lengthwise.
Debris of the cab car ruptures Amtrak #255’s fuel tanks as it rips the car apart, setting fire to the wreckage as the locomotive derails and turns around almost 180°. The entire commuter train derails, with all three passenger cars being destroyed, with half the Capitol Limited derailing as well. The fire quickly spreads through the wreckage, consuming part of the cab car and several of the baggage cars. 11 people die, all on the MARC-train and including the entire crew, 26 people on both trains are injured.
Residents in nearby apartments were the first people to call emergency services and were also the first to approach the wreckage, evacuating passengers from the rear of the train. They couldn’t access the majority of the center of the wreckage as the high temperatures of the raging fire kept them at a distance until the fire department arrived. Responders were on site within minutes and could hear people banging on the windows of the MARC-train, but were unable to stage a rescue effort. The windows of the train car proved extremely difficult to break, and due to deformation of the train cars most doors didn’t open. Most passengers who escaped the commuter-train made their way through the smoke-filled and partially deformed interior to the rear car to escape, only a few could be pulled free towards the front. The passengers on the Amtrak-train were luckier, the baggage cars up front had taken the brunt of the damage and thus made evacuation/rescue comparatively easy.
All survivors were taken to a makeshift hospital at an apartment block next to the rail line, where they were evaluated, treated and then released or taken to the hospital. Eventually the fire department managed to gain the upper hand on the blaze, allowing access to the leading car for the recovery of the victims in the early morning hours. Autopsies on the victims reveal that only 3 people aboard the MARC-train died from the initial collision, the remaining 8 were left unable to evacuate the car and fell victim to the smoke and fire.
Investigators took over the site the morning after the accident, and it was clear from the start that MARC 286 had been severely speeding. With the entire crew of the train perishing in the collision their exact reason would remain unknown, so the investigation focused on how an accident like this could be avoided as well as contributing factors to it and what changes should be implemented. Until a few years before the accident a signal had been located between Kensington station and the junction, but had been found to be superfluous and was thus removed. This signal might have reminded the MARC-crew of the upcoming red signal with enough time to stop. As it happened the train had instead gone right past the red signal, unable to stop ahead of both it and the junction. The signal had been removed on the argument of capacity expansion, a move heavily criticized by the investigation. It was also pointed out that an automatic train control system would have detected the commuter train’s excessive speed and brought the train to a halt regardless of driver input, but CSX had chosen not to install such a system on the Metropolitan Subdivision.
A major focus of the investigation was the crash- and post-crash behavior of the train cars involved, explicitly under the gruesome motivation of the initial survivors who were trapped and unable to escape the smoke in time. Investigators found a significant difference between the construction of the two Amtrak-locomotives, with #255’s fuel tanks being mounted outside the frame between the bogies while the following #811 had them mounted inside the frame, giving rather good protection against damage from the side. The investigation didn’t word it as such, but it can be assumed that, had the locomotive’s been in the opposite order, there wouldn’t have been a fire as the wreckage of the cab car wouldn’t have made sufficient contact with #811’s fuel tanks.
The report notes how responders were unable to open the MARC-train’s doors after the accident, along with passengers being unable to break most of the windows. It was also near-impossible to orientate oneself in the dark train cars, especially once they filled with smoke. In conclusion the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board), who run investigations like this, found emergency evacuation standards for passengers wildly inadequate and outdated and made 36 recommendations, most importantly:
- Passenger cars must have a quick release mechanism for exterior doors to quickly and easily open after an accident
- Some if not all passenger car windows must be removable to allow quick and direct evacuation
- Emergency exits are to be marked with luminescent (illuminated in some way) or retroreflective (highly reflective when hit with a beam of light) materials
In 1999, 2 years after the report was published, the Federal Railroad Administration introduced a new comprehensive set of rules for passenger car design which focused on crashworthiness-standards and evacuation components, the first such set of rules in 169 years.
Following the accident the engineer and conductor of the Capitol Limited filed lawsuits against Amtrak, CSX (who owned the rail line and had provided the staff for the commuter train) and the state of Maryland on a total sum of over 100 million USD alleging gross negligence in the form of the removal of the signal between Kensington station and Georgetown Junction along with the behavior of the commuter train’s driver. Both men claimed that the avoidable accident had left them with injuries rendering them unable to return to their past jobs. The outcome of the lawsuit was not published.
The eight passengers who died were all students at the Harpers Ferry Job Corps Center, a technical school in West Virginia. With that in mind the main memorial for the accident was erected at the Center, consisting of a circular group of engraved concrete pillars flanked by weeping cherry trees. A memorial plaque was also installed at a bridge near the site of the accident and a tombstone can be found at Brunswick station listing the passenger victims on one side and the dead crew members on the other. That memorial arguably carries some controversy as it declares the driver, who was found to be at fault for the accident, as one of “the Heroes of train #286”.
As of 2022 most trains in the US consist of newer rail cars which match raised crash safety standards, improving the chances of survival in the event of an accident. However, automatic train control has still not been installed on large parts of the US rail network, leaving human error a needlessly likely cause for accidents. In 2015 MARC replaced the style of passenger car involved in the accident with modern Bombardier Bilevel cars, vastly improving crash safety of their push-pull trains. Amtrak #255 was written off after the accident, with most of the fleet remaining in service until 2003. Today 2 units are in storage with 3 more being preserved as historic locomotives. 15 P40DCs were upgraded to the specifications of their successor (P42DC) and remain the only locomotives of the type in service with Amtrak. Number 811, the unit involved in the accident at Silver Spring, was not among those upgraded and was thus retired. The P42DC is Amtrak’s main diesel locomotive at this time (2022), but is in the process of losing several long-distance services to the new Siemens “Charger”-locomotives being introduced between 2021 and 2024, largely reducing their duties to commuter trains on the Northeast Corridor.
History repeats itself
The accident at Maryland holds strong similarities with two accidents preceding it, both of which have been featured on this blog:
- In 1987 an Amtrak long distance express train rear-ended a trio of Conrail diesel locomotives near Chase, Maryland (USA) after the locomotives had disregarded a red signal and entered the main line instead of letting the Amtrak train pass them. The Chase Train Collision claimed 16 lives and the article can be found right here.
- In February 1990 two rapid transit (“S-Bahn”) trains collided head-on at Rüsselsheim, Germany. One of the trains’ driver had forgotten about a signal given ahead of a stop and picked up so much speed that, by the time he realized his error and initiated an emergency stop, his train slid into the path of an oncoming train he had been meant to let past. The collision claimed 17 lives and the article can be found right here.
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