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MISREAD SIGNAL CITED AS A FACTOR IN AMTRAK-FREIGHT TRAIN COLLISION

The veteran Amtrak engineer operating the passenger train that hit a CSX freight train apparently misread a signal that suggested reduced speed and warned of an obstacle ahead, a federal safety official said Tuesday in Syracuse.

The missed signal was just one of several factors that appeared to have contributed to the collision Monday that left 61 people with cuts, bruises and broken bones, said Russ Quimby of the National Transportation Safety Board.

A preliminary investigation also indicated that the engineer might have suffered physical problems -- including high blood sugar that could have impaired his ability to operate the five-car train, Quimby said. The engineer also might have been distracted by paperwork and was driving an unfamiliar model engine.

The crash occurred at 11:42 a.m. Monday behind a china factory in an industrial area, just moments after the five-car passenger train left the Regional Transportation Center in Syracuse. The train, carrying 98 passengers and a crew of four, was traveling from Buffalo to Albany.

The Amtrak train and the 92-car CSX train had been routed onto the same track because of maintenance on another eastbound track, a normal procedure, Quimby said.

The freight train was behind another freight train, both waiting to pull into a rail yard a short distance ahead, he said. The freight train was moving at about 7 mph, he said.

Based on interviews and analysis of the "event recorders" on both trains and the signal mechanisms, the Amtrak engineer appears to have missed a signal indicating "restricted" speed of 15 mph or less. The red light over solid yellow light also indicated an obstacle ahead and warned engineers to be able to stop their trains suddenly.

The Amtrak engineer told investigators he thought the signal showed a red light over a flashing yellow light, which means he could go up to 30 mph.

Even so, Quimby said, evidence indicated the Amtrak train's speed was "significantly" more than 30 mph. When pressed, Quimby said the train was traveling "at least over 40 mph."

Quimby said investigators today planned to re-enact the moments before the collision to determine what the engineer could see. "It will involve a passenger locomotive and a boxcar in the position of the freight train when it was struck," he said.

The crash has raised new calls from rail passenger advocates for a high-tech signal system that would drastically reduce the possibility of such rear-end collisions, while allowing for increased speeds.

Systems such as "in-cab signals" that allow the engineer to view signals before physically sighting them, or experimental trackers guided by satellites and tied to signals, would have activated the emergency brakes on the Amtrak train if it had passed a red signal, according to experts.

"It absolutely would have prevented it," said Frank D. Barry, an Ithaca-area rail advocate and legislative director of the Empire State Passengers Association. "It's an overriding technology, where if the engine runs past a red signal, it would have overridden it and applied the brakes. Perhaps there is more reason than ever now to do it."

But while Amtrak and the state Department of Transportation have agreed on such a system, its installation has been delayed by a long-standing dispute between the state and CSX over laws that tax railroads for 110 percent of the value of improvements.

Gov. George E. Pataki's new budget proposes changes in the laws, and corresponding bills are before the State Legislature. But CSX -- the railroad over which New York Amtrak trains run -- is not interested in signal improvement until the dispute is settled.

"To do things with more or faster passenger service, we need to be in a position where our service is not harmed and we won't be penalized for doing it," said Robert T. Sullivan, CSX spokesman.

Sullivan acknowledged that an advanced signal system ideally would have engaged the emergency brakes on the Amtrak train.

But he also emphasized that, with a current top speed of 79 mph, the stretch of track does not need such a system. Such signals would be necessary only on track with substantially higher speed limits, such as on the stretch between Albany and Poughkeepsie.

"We are not talking basic issues of safety here," he said. "That railroad is safe, and under no circumstances are we going to compromise on safety."

DOT spokesman Michael Fleischer explained that the state has committed $50 million for track, signal and grade crossing improvements between Albany and Buffalo. He said no timetable has been set for signal improvements that might allow for 90-mph service, partially because researchers are still experimenting with the satellite-based systems.

A Buffalo native who was injured in Monday's accident said other modern technology might have hastened emergency response to the scene while easing the suffering of a group of fellow disabled passengers who had boarded in Rochester.

Ben Penner, 56, who grew up in Buffalo and now runs a consulting business out of his Monroe County home, said he was was thrown against the wall of the car and knocked unconscious by the collision. But when he revived, he used his cell phone to call 911.

"It allowed me to take control of my life and help people," he said Tuesday from Syracuse, where he was recovering from a concussion. "After I woke up, I immediately called 911."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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