• Chase, Maryland 1/4/87

  • Discussion related to the operations and equipment of Consolidated Rail Corp. (Conrail) from 1976 to its present operations as Conrail Shared Assets. Official web site can be found here: CONRAIL.COM.
Discussion related to the operations and equipment of Consolidated Rail Corp. (Conrail) from 1976 to its present operations as Conrail Shared Assets. Official web site can be found here: CONRAIL.COM.

Moderators: TAMR213, keeper1616

  by MR77100
On January 4, 1987, a tragic accident occurred on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor. Three Conrail B36-7's ran through a signal into the path of Amtrak's Colonial, which was doing 128 mph! The resulting crash killed 16 people. I know that Conrail engineer Ricky Gates was found to be under the influence of marajuana. What was his punishment? Also, was it this wreck that forced Conrail off the corridor?

  by TAMR213
I belive it is because Amtrak was charging high cart costs to run trains on the NEC. This maybe a cause of the high charges, but I am not sure. Hopefully this link will shed some light on the incident.

  by LCJ
MR77100 wrote:Also, was it this wreck that forced Conrail off the corridor?
Conrail was never forced off of the Corridor. NS operates trains on it to this day under the same arrangement as Conrail after they sold the Corridor to Amtrak.

At the time of this accident, Conrail was already in the process of re-routing trains away from NEC because of the high fees charged by Amtrak. Some traffic was moved to the Hagerstown gateway, while a trackage rights agreement was negotiated with CSX to operate over the B&O Washington-Philadelphia line.

Access to Baltimore and the Eastern Shore, however, is not efficiently attained other than via NEC.

One thing that did come of this accident was a window of operations was put in effect. Freight could operate on NEC only between 10:30 PM and 6:30 AM. I believe this is still the case for NS.

  by shlustig
IIRC, both Engr. Gates and the Brkmn. (Cromwell?) were charged criminally and both served time. Don't recall if a plea bargain was done.

The collision was a hot topic in the Annual Rules classes which we conducted at the time; also, for the periodic supervisory safety meetings and at the Annual Supervisory Rules Classes.

The real tragedy was that -- just like so many other major incidents which occurred on Conrail and on other lines -- this one could have been avoided. However, the temptation to get out of town on a fast light engine move plus the condition of the on-board crew (as well as other factors) combined to produce the end result.

  by LCJ
I believe Mr. Cromwell turned state's evidence and avoided prosecution.

In addition to the factors cited by Sheldon, there are these, occurring in conjunction as they did, creating the possibility of the accident:

1. Systemic weakness, prior to 1/4/87, of the cab signals on Conrail diesel freight locomotives -- too easy to monkey up, and had no train stopping capability. If a system can be compromised, it will -- sooner or later.

Note here that the electric motors that dominated this territory in previous years were train stop equipped -- diesels were not. If the cab signal aspect changed to more restrictive on diesels, the alarm whistle would be sounded, but the brakes would not apply when the change was not acknowledged. As Bob Kennedy, air brake instructor extraordinaire from New Haven once said: "The crew would slowly go deaf." That is, of course, if the whistle weren't taped up.

Without train stop capability, the system was, in effect, useless -- or at least seriously handicapped.

2. Habitual dependence by Conrail crews at that time on cab signal aspect changes and subsequent alarm sounding to provide operational cues. If the crew is distracted, and the alarm is muffled, the crew won't be alerted to restrictive signals -- hence appropriate action won't be taken (as was the case that day).

3. Habitual by-passing of meaningful cab signal departure testing. If this crew had done this as required, they would have found there was a muffled alarm whistle -- and aborted the departure or gotten the equipment fixed (see 1 and 2). The importance of this procedure was not generally recognized.

All of the above could be chalked up to failure of supervision, and failure of imagination on the part of all involved.

Railroad operations history is replete with periodic, systemic upgrades -- usually in response to the ways in which people and situations will find a way through the safety gaps in the equipment and procedures. This is just another example.

Edited for clarity 11/22/04
Last edited by LCJ on Mon Nov 22, 2004 11:37 am, edited 1 time in total.

  by TAMR213
Yes, frieght trains are still operated on the NEC. But just FYI, there is no "window of operations", in the NJ area anyway. There is a local (ME-2) that goes through New Brunswick around 10AM, returns to Edison yard around 2 pm. A transfer (LI-26) travels through usually around 3PM. Then there is another local (ME-34) which travels through NB anywhere between 7 and 11 PM. Then of course, through the night, there are many various operations happening.

  by LCJ
Yes -- allowances have always been made for local service on NEC.

Also note that freight locomotives on NEC must be equipped with LSL (locomotive speed limiter), a computerized device that regulates speed in accordance with cab and wayside signals.
  by Noel Weaver
Rickey Gates (the engineer on the Conrail light engines) was a household
name for many of us on the railroad at the time. He cast a black mark on
all of us for a long time.
By his actions, we ended up with random drug testing in both the railroad
and airline industry. We also ended up with a federal requirement for a
license to operate a locomotive. Right after that incident, all of Conrail's
locomotives had the cab signal whistle modified so that it had to be
acknowledged and if it wasn't, it would stop the train automatically.
Ricky Gates, nobody on the railroad will ever forget that name of an
individual who brough disgrace to railroad people everywhere.
I do not want to be associated with him.
Noel Weaver

  by Andyt293
I know this is going to set off a firestorm but here goes.

What 's wrong with random drug testing?

What's wrong with license requirements?

  by kevikens
This incident also would lead to Septa deciding to withdraw its old Reading MU's at that time designated Blueliners because thay did not have the cab signaling equipment now required for operating on the NEC. Rather than retro-equip them Septa scrapped them. Really sorry to see them go.

  by Jtgshu
There was a real good thread on Trains.com about a year ago, and someone claiming to be Ricky Gates actually posted several times, and its a very interesting read. Its probably buried deep deep in teh archieves, but its worth the search.

Its a very touchy subject on the railroad, between "pre" and "Post" Rickey Gates times. The trains.com thread gets very heated between those RR'ers who worked before 87, and those who worked after and their reaction to changes that were implemented as a result of the wreck.

  by charlie6017
I agree with licenses and especially drug testing. I am a school bus driver and transport precious cargo every day, just as trainmen do (especially Amtrak crews). I am subject to random testing at any given time and had to obtain a "Class B CDL". From my perspective, I think it's a great idea.

  by LCJ
Andyt293 wrote:What 's wrong with random drug testing?

What's wrong with license requirements?
I tend to be in agreement here, Andy.

Random testing was initially focused on alcohol consumption/impairment. Alcohol was historically a much larger problem in railroad ops than other drugs.

The combination of testing and the certification process has driven this problem to very small numbers. Engineers with DUI/DWI records have either cleaned up their act or found other employment.

The way you look at this depends heavily upon which side of the situation you find yourself.

From the perspective of public safety it's a no-brainer, as I see it.


  by Noel Weaver
Unfortunately, I tend to agree that the license requirement and the random testing had to happen.
As far as the license is concerned, the engineers generally got a little
something for having it and once or twice I recall conductors who were not
qualified engineers accepting a call to run a train. I remember a case on
the Danbury Branch a number of years ago when a conductor ran the
Budd Car to South Norwalk and there was hell to pay but I don't think it
could have happened had the license requirement been in place at the
time. Not really sure whether the company authorized it or not but I
remember that it occurred.
I know that as an engineer, I NEVER accepted a call for a conductor's
assignment, the conductors really respected me for that position too. I
was forced to act as a conductor a few times in emergency situations when ordered by a supervisor. I always put in for an additional day's pay
but it was generally denied by Metro-North as that was the outfit that
usually did that sort of a thing.
I seem to recall that Metro-North had a scandal with a train dispatcher
once operating a passenger train as well, don't remember what was done
over that one.
Noel Weaver

  by Jtgshu
Im all for the licencing and formal training of engineers as we have it today, and I don't have a problem getting random drug tested (happens quite frequently to me actually, compared to others at my RR - usually at least once a year, sometimes twice)

However, I think there should be a little more training with conductors in the act of running trains, and the engineer's position. At NJT, an engineer can be a conductor, but a conductor can't act as an engineer (in emergency situations). I think there should be a brief course on teh basics of handling the train for the conductor, so if something were to happen to the engineer, or the engineer got sick or a significant reverse move had to be made, the conductor could just take over the controls adn actually sort of be able to run the train in a decent manner. Although I didn't work for the railroad before teh Chase wreck, Ive been told many stories, and in those times, something like the above would happen, becuase there wouldn't be the fear of major reprocussions, and the crew did what htey had to do to get the train from A to B, adn no "licencing" and "unauthorized running of the train" took place. Think about how many FRA violations that would be today!!!!