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Opening Statement at the Public Hearing on the February 16, 1996 Collision Between an Amtrak Train and a MARC Commuter Train in Silver Spring, Maryland
Jim Hall
Opening Statement at the Public Hearing on the February 16, 1996 Collision Between an Amtrak Train and a MARC Commuter Train in Silver Spring, Maryland, Washington, DC

Good morning ladies and gentlemen, I would like to welcome you to this hearing into the circumstances surrounding the tragic Silver Spring accident on February 16, 1996, when 11 persons lost their lives in the collision of an Amtrak train with a commuter train.

My name is Jim Hall, Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board and Chairman of this public hearing. The Safety Board is convening this hearing as part of its Congressional mandate to investigate transportation accidents, determine probable cause, and issue safety recommendations to prevent similar accidents from recurring in the future.

Since 1974, the primary responsibility for investigating railroad and rail transit accidents has been assigned by Congress to the Safety Board. In our investigations, there is no attempt to determine legal liability or regulatory violations. We do, however, investigate the adequacy of existing regulations and of the performances of state and federal agencies charged with enforcing those regulations and with oversight of the railroad operations. Company policies and procedures are also closely analyzed in order to determine not just what happened, but why it happened.

Briefly, the circumstances of the accident are these:

On February 16, 1996, at about 5:38 pm, eastbound Maryland Regional Commuter train 286 consisting of three passenger cars and a locomotive, collided nearly head-on with westbound Amtrak train 29, the Capital Limited. There were 164 passengers and 18 crew aboard the Amtrak train; the engineer and assistant engineer were injured in the accident. There were three crewmembers and 20 passengers on board the MARC train. All three crew members and eight passengers were killed in the accident and resulting fire.

The Safety Board's 17 railroad accident investigators have been extremely busy this year. Since January 1, 1996, the Railroad Division has launched on 35 railroad accidents resulting in:

  • 26 fatalities,
  • 438 injuries and
  • over $60 million dollars in damages.

Included in these investigations are 6 runaway trains, 6 collisions, 11 derailments, and 12 grade crossing accidents.

Railroad transportation is safe and has been getting safer over the last decade or so. But the many accidents early this year served to awaken the interest of the American people regarding rail safety in general, and have raised specific issues in particular; issues such as positive train separation, two-way end-of-train devices, and passenger car safety standards that have been on the Board's agenda for many years. Two of those issues are directly tied to this accident.

The issue of positive train separation - an advanced control systems that will act as a safety net for human performance failures in the operation of trains - has been highlighted over and over in Safety Board investigations since 1969. Train accidents that took place in

  • Sugar Valley, Georgia;
  • Corona, California;
  • Knox, Indiana;
  • Ledger, Montana;
  • Kelso, Washington; and
  • Thedford, Nebraska;

could have all been prevented if a fully developed positive train separation system had been in place. And now we must add other accidents to this list.

Positive train separation is also on the NTSB's list of Most Wanted Transportation Safety Improvements. About 70 to 80 percent of the railroad accidents investigated by the Safety Board can be attributed to human error. The Safety Board believes that new technology in the form of an advanced electronic system can reduce the severity of human performance train operations accidents by overriding the train operator's actions to prevent train collisions and overspeed derailments.

The Safety Board has advocated passenger car safety standards in dozens of accident investigations. The list of accidents where the Safety Board made recommendations in this area goes back over 27 years. The 1996 accidents on Washington METRO at Gaithersburg, Maryland, on New Jersey Transit in Secaucus, New Jersey, and on the MARC Train in Silver Spring, Maryland again tragically point out the need for passenger car safety standards.

Our past recommendations included some familiar issues:

  • advising passengers of emergency procedures
  • seat securement and luggage retention devices
  • safe window designs
  • elimination of sources of direct impact injury
  • occupant protection
  • emergency exits and emergency lights
  • inspection of safety devices
  • clearly identified door emergency release mechanisms

As part of this hearing we will be looking closely at different elements of rail safety. As I've said, the railroads and the rail transit operators have an enviable safety record, but there is room for improvement. This investigation can be an opportunity to establish changes in the way railroads operate to make them safer than ever before.

Government certainly has a role in reaching this objective. The public servants represented in this room -- whether they are employees of the Federal Railroad Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, or the Safety Board -- have an opportunity, an obligation, and a public mandate to improve rail safety. The American taxpayer has the right to a safe rail system.

In fiscal year 1996, the Federal Railroad Administration received about $850 million to carry on their regulatory rail safety program. Likewise, the Federal Transit Administration received $4 billion to fund rail transportation infrastructure and equipment purchases. The NTSB itself received almost $39 million dollars - 15 cents per citizen - to safeguard all forms of transportation in this country, including providing oversight of the Federal Railroad Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, and other Department of Transportation regulators. The public has a substantial investment in rail transportation safety and deserves results from that investment.

I believe that that Safety Board is the eyes and ears of the American people at accident sites. We continue that role at hearings like this. It is our responsibility to make sure that the investigations are thorough and comprehensive.

During the next three days we will be addressing the circumstances of the Silver Spring Accident. The specific issues that we will cover are:
1. Details of the Silver Spring Accident and the Emergency Response,
2. The Brunswick line Signal System, Signal Reliability, and Advanced Signal Systems,
3. Train Operations and Crew Performance,
4. Passenger Car Safety Standards, and,
5. Oversight of Commuter Rail Operations.

Our plate this week will be full, but I can promise you that we will address policies and oversight of the companies and government agencies that operate, finance, and regulate our rail transportation system to determine their respective roles in the safety equation.

As I said in another context earlier this week, I fear that when this investigation is concluded, we might find that the Silver Spring accident was caused by lessons previously learned and either forgotten or ignored. That would make this a double tragedy.

I hope what we learn through this hearing, and through this investigation, will mobilize the rail industry and government regulators to finally effect the changes necessary to prevent a recurrence of this tragedy.


Jim Hall's Speeches