NTSB Says Engineer Reported Seeing "Misalignment" Of Track Before Derailment

The engineer aboard the City of New Orleans reported seeing "some sort of misalignment in the rail'' shortly before the Amtrak passenger train spilled into a swampy area of Central Mississippi, federal investigators said Thursday.

One person died and dozens were injured in Tuesday's derailment in Yazoo County about 25 miles north of Jackson.

"He applied his brakes. Six seconds later, he reported seeing the right rail roll over in front of him,'' Mark Rosenker, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said following interviews with the engineer.

The derailment occurred on a stretch of CN Railway-owned track with a rough history. Four freight trains, including on carrying toxic chemicals, derailed on that area since 1994.

CN Railway spokesman Ian Thomson said the rails were inspected just two days before the Tuesday's wreck. He said two freight trains rode the same track the afternoon preceding Amtrak's 6:33 p.m. derailment and engineers reported no problems.

Rosenker said the engineer told officials he applied the emergency brake and "from the time he applied the emergency brake to the time he came to a full stop, which was 14 seconds later, the locomotive moved approximately 400 feet.''

Rosenker declined to release the names of the engineer or the conductor. Amtrak officials said both employees were veterans of the railroad. He said the investigation is continuing and officials are awaiting toxicology test results on the crew.

Freight service resumed on the line Thursday and Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said passenger service from Chicago to New Orleans was planned Thursday night, followed by a Friday train north from New Orleans.

Rosenker said earlier that a data recorder, the train's equivalent of an airplane's black box, was recovered and examined. He said the data showed the train was traveling at 78 mph, one mile under the posted speed limit.

The 12-member NTSB team plans to complete its onsite investigation by the weekend. The agency expects the full investigation will be completed 18 months from now.

Rosenker said it took 90 minutes from the time of the accident to completely evacuate the train, which had an engine and nine cars. He said three of the cars had been set upright and that work was continuing on the others.

Several passengers claim the crew warned them minutes before the derailment that the section of track they were on was always a bumpy, choppy ride. But did those complaints reach the right ears, is now a question NTSB will ponder.

The U.S. Federal Railway Administration sets standards for tracks, signals, operations and equipment that railroad owners like CN must meet. The burden of testing the track's safety compliance rests primarily on the approximately 600 companies that own America's railroad tracks.

"The FRA has only 500 inspectors so we have to be careful how we allocate onsite inspections to problem areas,'' said FRA spokesman Warren Flateau.

Magliari said when a track needs repairs, owners can issue a "slow order'' to Amtrak engineers. The slow order warns the engineer to drive below the posted speed limit until the repair is made. Neither Amtrak or CN spokesmen could say whether a slow order was issued but the engineer was debriefed Thursday.

The FRA holds occasional meetings where Amtrak employees can discuss their concerns about track problems with track owners and Amtrak managers.

"The (Clinton) administration wanted that implemented because Amtrak labor would scream that their concerns about rail safety get lost in a bureaucracy and managers and owners had their own gripes about the people complaining,'' Flateau said. "The meetings are a way to sort it all out.''

He was unsure of whether such a summit had been held with CN and Amtrak about tracks near the Big Black River.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)