The National Transportation Safety Board today determined that the probable cause of a fatal CSX Transportation (CSXT) coal train derailment near Bloomington, Maryland, on January 30, 2000, was “the railroad’s practice of including dynamic braking in determining maximum authorized speed without providing the engineer with real-time information on the status of the dynamic braking system.”
The eastbound CSXT coal train lost effective braking while descending a section of track known as “17-mile grade,” between Altamont and Bloomington, Maryland, and derailed 76 of its 80 high-sided gondola cars when it failed to negotiate curves at excessive speed. The derailed cars destroyed a nearby residence, killing a 15 year-old boy and seriously injuring his mother. Three others in the house escaped with little or no injury. Track and equipment damage was estimated at about $3.2 million.
Dynamic braking is a supplemental braking method, based on the kinetic energy developed by a moving train, which is independent of the train’s air brake system, the main means of braking control. Because it may fail suddenly and without warning, federal regulatory authorities do not consider it sufficiently reliable to be used in determining maximum safe speeds.
In the Bloomington accident, the Board determined that by including the effects of dynamic braking in its speed calculations, CSXT established a maximum authorized speed down 17-mile grade that was too high to ensure that heavily loaded trains could be safely stopped using air brakes alone.
Additionally, the investigation revealed that due to a defective multi-unit cable only one of three locomotive units on the accident train was producing dynamic braking. The train engineer was not aware of this as there was no device in the lead locomotive for checking the real-time condition of the dynamic brakes, nor was one required at the time of the accident.
The Board further determined that CSXT management had failed to train and oversee the engineer sufficiently, as evidenced by the failure to provide a pilot when requested by the engineer, the failure to fully accomplish a prior evaluation of the engineer over the critical portion of the railroad where the accident took place, the engineer’s failure to use the end-of-train emergency brake switch, the engineer’s imprudent use of power during brake application, and his reported inability to use the radio to contact the dispatcher.
As a result of this investigation, the Safety Board made a number of recommendations to CSXT to deal with the problem areas that had been identified. The Board also recommended that all Class I railroads recalculate maximum authorized speed to ensure that trains can be stopped by use of the air brake system alone.
A synopsis of the investigation report, including the conclusions, probable cause and recommendations, can be found on the Board’s web site at www.ntsb.gov <http://www.ntsb.gov/Publictn/2002/RAR0202.htm>. The complete accident report will be available on the web site at a later date.