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March 1996

 

A Terrible Accident

[By Allen Brougham . . . photos by Sol Tucker]

MARC Train and Capitol Limited Collide . . . . . . .

The date of February 16, 1996, will long be remembered as the saddest of days. Indeed, it's hard to express the anguish upon hearing the news as it slowly unfolded that evening. I'm not alone; the anguish and sorrow are felt by all of us. When it was all over, 11 people had died, and more than a score were injured.

It happened in Silver Spring, Maryland, at a place known on the railroad as Georgetown Junction. It is about eight miles from Washington on the Metropolitan Subdivision, a busy double-track main line shared by freight trains, MARC trains, and the Capitol Limited. Georgetown Junction is replete with power-operated switches and absolute signals controlled by the train dispatcher in Jacksonville.

The signal system at Georgetown Junction was upgraded in 1992 as part of a MARC service improvement program which, coincidentally, also included the retirement of QN Tower in Washington in September of that year.

I was second-shift operator at QN Tower for the final six and one-half months before the tower closed. The switches and signals at Georgetown Junction had, until then, been remotely controlled from QN Tower. So the accident at Georgetown Junction had added significance to me. Had QN not been retired, and had I remained at QN to the current time, I would likely have been on duty there at the time of the accident. It would have been on my shift.

Life goes on. The trains are running once again. And, yes, I still don my Amtrak hat for the Capitol Limited, sing my song as it approaches Miller Tower, and give a friendly wave to the passengers as the train goes by. This is something I didn't want to change . . . even in a time of sorrow.

Miscellaneous Facts . . . . . . .

Georgetown Junction is named for the 11-mile branch which once connected this location with Georgetown in northwest Washington. Service on that branch ended in 1985, but a short portion (less than a mile) remains in service from the junction as an industrial track.

Georgetown Junction has two sets of power crossovers between each of the two main tracks (numbered 1 and 2 tracks respectively) and a power switch from No. 2 track to the Georgetown Industrial track. The tracks at the junction are equipped with "absolute" signals to govern movements in all directions and to provide information on the track ahead. The junction can be referred to as a "control point," with its crossovers, switch and signals controlled by a train dispatcher in Jacksonville. It is part of a "traffic control system" used for the selective routing of trains by signals, in either direction on either track. TCS is commonly referred to as "265 territory," for the rules (265-271) covering it in the rulebook. The milepost location of Georgetown Junction is BA 8.3. (Milepost BA 0.0 is in Washington, and the numbering of mileposts is westward.)

The next control point east (geographically south) of Georgetown Junction is QN Tower. (The tower closed in 1992, but its name is still used.) The milepost at QN Tower is BA 2.1. QN Tower is the location of the switch to the track into Washington Union Station, used by passenger trains, while freight trains divert to a double set of wye tracks leading to the Capital Subdivision by way of another control point, named F Tower (again, in name only), next to Ivy City.

For most of their distance between QN Tower and Georgetown Junction, Nos. 1 and 2 tracks are separated with Washington Metro's red line operating on its own tracks in the middle. Four of Metro's stations are included along this corridor, also in the middle. The Metro tracks drop underground geographically north of Silver Spring (just east of Georgetown Junction) and are not adjacent to the CSX tracks at the junction.

The next control point west (geographically north) of Georgetown Junction is named Lincoln Park, at Derwood, Maryland, milepost BA 19.6.

All tracks to and from succeeding control points can be referred to as an "absolute block section." (Don't confuse this term with an absolute block, that's something else.) An absolute block section may be equipped with any number of wayside signals called "intermediate" signals along its route. Intermediate signals do not govern movement at control points, such as over power-operated switches, but they do provide trains with information on the track ahead. The distance between succeeding signals in the same direction (both intermediate and absolute) is known as a "block." An important distinction between an absolute and an intermediate signal is the capability of the absolute signal to require a train to stop and remain stopped. An intermediate signal, which only provides information on the track ahead, cannot by itself hold a train at its location. The most restrictive aspect of an intermediate signal (either "stop and proceed" or "grade signal") will still permit a train to proceed into that block - at restricted speed - if conditions permit. (Restricted speed is 15 MPH, or less than that if necessary.) Other aspects govern at absolute and intermediate signals without difference.

"Current of traffic" is a term used for the flow of trains through an absolute block section. Any number of trains can be cleared to move successively in the same direction from one control point to the next, but only after all trains in that direction have cleared the track of an absolute block section may current of traffic be reversed for trains to move the other way. The integrity of the signal system is designed to protect this. If the dispatcher were to clear a signal for a train to move into an absolute block section, but circumstances change and he then cancels the signal before the train arrives, this will trigger a "release time" to allow signal protection before any changes can be made to the route that had been governed by the signal that was canceled. Release time varies by territory, but is typically five to eight minutes. If an absolute block section is clear of trains when the signal is canceled, the release time will still maintain direction of traffic through the entire section until the release time runs out.

Signals in use in the area of Georgetown Junction are "color-position light" - from the former B&O - which display a pair of color lights (both the same color) in a circular cluster, for each aspect, plus a pilot light in a prescribed position above or below the circular cluster to qualify some (but not all) of those aspects. With respect to signals of the same clustered color pair, the meaning of signals without pilot lights is more restrictive than signals with pilot lights. Consequently, the loss of a pilot light may require a slower speed. The loss of one of the two color lights within the circular cluster will not change the signal's meaning, but the loss of both of these lights will be observed as though the lights were red. Similarly, any ambiguity in a signal aspect will be observed as the most restrictive meaning it could convey.

The condition of a block and the aspect of the signal protecting it may affect the aspects of signals protecting other blocks to the rear. A simplified example would be a block protecting a train to its rear within the block by a stop or stop-and-proceed signal; the unoccupied block behind it would be protected by an "approach" signal; and the unoccupied block behind that one would have at its entrance a "clear" signal. The most favorable signal for a train to enter a block by is a "clear." It infers there are no preceding trains in at least the next two blocks. (Again, this is a simplified example; other aspects may come into play in various situations.)

On the day of the accident, the westbound Capitol Limited was identified P02916. It departed Washington about one hour and 20 minutes late, delayed in the terminal reportedly by weather factors. (It was snowing.) P02916 was routed westbound on No. 2 track from QN Tower to Georgetown Junction, thence through the crossover at the junction to No. 1 track, with the intention that it pass K95116 which was on No. 1 track east of the junction. (K95116 was the westbound empty Rock Runner en route from Bladensburg, Maryland, to Millville, West Virginia.) Meanwhile, MARC train identified P28616, an eastbound "reverse commute" train from Brunswick, Maryland, to Washington was routed eastbound on No. 2 track from Lincoln Park to Georgetown Junction. It had one locomotive on the rear of three Sumitomo coaches in push-mode. It was intended that P28616 wait at Georgetown Junction, as there were no tracks available east of that point at the immediate time.

The time of the accident was 5:40 PM. Eleven people on board the MARC train were killed, including its three CSXT crew members. The crew members were engineer Ricky Orr, conductor Jimmy Major, and assistant conductor Jimmy Quillen. The cause of the accident is under investigation.

Remembering Ricky Orr

[By Sol Tucker]

Ricky Orr was the engineer of the MARC train and was killed in the accident. Sol Tucker is a student at Georgetown University in Washington.

I distinctly remember meeting Ricky in April 1995 when a close friend of mine, Tommy George, was working conductor on MARC train 273 from Washington to Brunswick. The crew this day was Ricky Orr, Chuck McQue, and Tommy. I remember being at the station in Gaithersburg waiting to ride to Brunswick. As MARC locomotive 60 approached I could see Tommy preparing for the station stop as I waived to the engineer. As I boarded the train, Tommy called to Ricky on the radio, "Next stop Metropolitan Grove, Ricky!" He responded with a "Roger" and a few minutes later "P273 clear at Wards one west, out!" At this time I asked Tommy who the engineer was, as I did not recognize his voice. Tommy replied, "That's Ricky Orr; you can meet him when we back into the Valley yard at Brunswick." When we got off the train at Brunswick, Tommy introduced me to Ricky and explained a little about how I knew him. Ricky sort of smiled and Tommy said, "We will see you at 5 o'clock." I talked with Ricky for half an hour while he filled out his work report and chatted with the yardmaster and the crew for R347. He asked me why I liked trains so much. I told him that my father once had taken me to the station in Gaithersburg to watch trains and I got hooked. I told him that I collected timetables and he said he did the same. Ricky told me that he had saved all of his timetables since he started working for the B&O in 1971. We chatted for a few more minutes and joked with Chuck McQue about his evening plans in Baltimore. I noticed that everyone liked Ricky and he seemed very easy to get along with. A few minutes later he put his safety sunglasses on and closed the engineer's door of the cab car and called a clear signal at Maple Avenue. From here Tommy told me a little more about Ricky and how he loved passenger runs. I told him he seemed like a real nice guy to work with, to which Tommy replied, "He sure is, and he really knows his railroad." Later I decided not to get off at Gaithersburg, but continue into Washington. When we arrived Union Station I walked with Ricky into the crew room to wait to go back on P281. Here I sat with Ricky and laughed as he told stories to Amtrak crews. I remember he said that he had some home made beef stew and he wanted to know if I wanted any. I declined, but being nice he insisted that I try some anyway, and I did. When it was time for me to leave, I told him I would see him during the summer. I saw and talked with him many times over the summer at Camden Station, and when he changed jobs to P253-P256, I always would try to stop at Savage or Jessup to talk to him. It really hit me hard when I found out what happened at Georgetown Junction. I will remember Ricky, and for how proud he was, and I will cherish a set of train messages he gave me following a trip this past summer.

 

CSXT Retires, Donates to B&O Museum, Sunburst Engine

CSXT has retired B&O sunburst-scheme locomotive 4253 and donated it to the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore. The museum plans to renumber the unit to its B&O number 6944.

 

Union Pacific Considers Merging its Railroad Museum

The Union Pacific Railroad Museum in the Omaha, Nebraska, headquarters building may be moved to the Western Heritage Museum in the former Omaha Union Station, according to a UP report. Discussions are underway with Western Heritage Museum to merge. The move would give the UP display significantly more space than it now has in the headquarters building, and ample public parking. UP is studying the feasibility of the Idea. The Union Pacific Museum, one of the oldest corporate museums in the country, was started in 1922.

 

Specialized Routes to be Introduced by UP if Merger with SP is Approved

Union Pacific has announced that if its merger with Southern Pacific is approved, specialized use of parallel lines in Arkansas - similar to one way streets - will be introduced. UP and SP currently operate lines through the state which run northeast to southwest. Under the plan, the present UP line through North Little Rock would become primarily a northbound line, and the present SP line through Pine Bluff would become primarily a southbound line. Local traffic would still move in either direction. UP's locomotive repair facility at North Little Rock will remain operating, focusing on repairing EMD locomotives. GE locomotives will be overhauled at the SP facility in Denver. SP's locomotive repair facility at Pine Bluff will remain open, according to the UP report.

 

Twelve Enter Bidding for Mexican Rail Concessions

Twelve companies and investment groups have entered the bidding process for Mexican rail concessions, according to the country's Transportation and Communications Ministry. In preparation for a partial privatization, the Mexican government has divided its state-owned rail system into three separate rail companies: Northeast, Pacific North, and Southeast railroads.