|ONLINE VERSION||VOLUME 106 - NUMBER 4 - MAY 1997|
|Amtrak Failed to Heed Warnings Before Derailment|
Most of the following article was taken directly from the investigative report done by Andrew Schneider and P. L. Wyckoff and published in the New Jersey Star-Ledger on February 5, 1997.
The November 23, 1996 derailment of an Amtrak train on the Portal Bridge in Secaucus, New Jersey injured 34 of the 113 people on board. The accident occurred when a connector cracked and moved out of position.
Amtrak knew of a problem with this critical part at least 10 months before the derailment, a company official admitted in February of this year. And "the record clearly shows that Amtrak managers at all levels were informed about the problems on Portal Bridge well before the derailment and did nothing to correct the problems that led to the derailment," Jed Dodd, BMWE General Chairman, said in the New Jersey Star-Ledger.
A section of tracks near the end of the bridge rises when the bridge needs to be moved and returns to its regular position when the bridge closes. The connector connects the rails that rise with those behind them and also helps wedge the tracks into position when the bridge closes.
In testimony taken after the accident, Jim Clark, Amtraks foreman in charge of maintaining and repairing Portal Bridge, stated that on January 23, 10 months before the derailment, he and his crew detected cracks on the rail connector on the west end of the bridge. He told his superior, Kenneth Hudson, Amtraks supervisor of structures, who agreed that the defective connectors needed to be replaced. Amtrak then ordered new connectors.
It wasnt until April 13, according to Clark, that a senior Amtrak engineer ordered the cracks in the old connectors be welded. Jack Nemeth, the welder, was told to repair the cracked part without removing it from the bridge.
Nemeth, who has 33 years of welding and bridge repair experience, told the engineer that welding just one side of the cracked part was dangerous and wouldnt hold. He says he was still ordered to weld the cracks that could be reached without removing the rail.
On June 20 Hudson wrote his supervisor that unless repairs were properly made "we risk the failure of mechanical and structural components of the bridge."
On August 29 the connector cracked open again and again Nemeth was order to weld the cracks. Nemeth again warned that the weld would not hold and again, Hudson agreed.
"We knew welding that track where it (sat) was not the best way to do it, but they figured that, as a stopgap, the welding might last the few weeks until the new rails came in. But when months passed and those rails were not installed, many of us got worried," the supervisor said, according to documents.
Alison Conway-Smith, an Amtrak vice president and chief engineer, confirmed the general chronology of events but said Amtrak officials felt welding the part would be "a good, temporary fix" and that safety would not be compromised.
Conway-Smith said that when replacement connectors arrived from the supplier in April, they did not fit. Engineers then ordered differently designed, higher-strength connectors, which were delivered late in the summer or early September, she said.
But instead of installing them immediately, officials decided to wait until the bridge was scheduled to undergo extensive work in the spring.
"They should have been replaced when they came in," Conway-Smith admitted. "People made the decision (to wait) based on this judgement ... that it was not a safety issue but a maintenance issue."
"It is extremely unfortunate, to say the least, that Amtrak management still considers safety and maintenance two separate issues," said Dodd. "Clearly, they are and always have been intertwined."
The National Transportation Safety Board investigator in charge told the Star-Ledger, "We cant make any statement at this point other than saying we are paying serious attention to the reports that the (track) problems were known before the November incident."
Kevin Hussey, BMWE New Jersey State Legislative Director, called the actions of Amtraks engineering staff appalling and denounced the railroad for attacking the workers who reported problems. The bridge operator who was taken out of service after the accident was completely exonerated at the hearing when all the facts came out.
"Tom Downs (Amtrak CEO) and his management team would have you believe that standing between the success and failure of Amtrak as a viable enterprise are union work rules. Well, union work rules did not derail the train at Portal Bridge injuring 34 passengers. Thank God no one was killed. In fact, the record clearly shows that the unionized employees did everything in their power to properly correct the problems at Portal Bridge that led to the derailment but Tom Downs new management team refused to spend the resources necessary to insure that the bridge was safe. Hopefully this is a wake up call to all who care about Amtrak and who ride the trains. How many other Portal Bridge disasters are out there on the high speed track waiting for this management to learn how to run a railroad?" asks Dodd.