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German Crash Leads Amtrak to Re-evaluate Bullet Trains

By Don Phillips
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

The deadly crash of a German high-speed train has prompted U.S. officials to reassess the safety of new Amtrak trains scheduled to go into service late next year, bringing 150 mph speeds on the run from Washington to New York and Boston.

The National Transportation Safety Board said it would send observers to the scene, and board chairman Jim Hall said the board "hopes we may learn vital lessons from Thursday's tragedy," given plans to introduce similar trains into the United States.

U.S. passenger train safety and crash-worthiness standards are much more stringent than European standards for a variety of historical and political reasons. Current U.S. passenger cars can withstand far greater crash forces than the German Inter-City Express trains, and the new Amtrak trains will tighten the standards even further. It is unlikely a U.S.-built train would shred open to the extent of the German train, experts said.

But Robert Lauby, head of the safety board's rail division, said that the board also wants to learn from the German wreck how to prevent failures that can lead to derailments.

"Anything that happens at that speed is unforgiving," Lauby said. "You better keep the train on the track to begin with."

Grady Cothen, an associate administrator at the Federal Railroad Administration which sets passenger car safety standards, said the FRA is looking carefully at the German wreck. Even with tough standards, he said, "if you hit a bridge abutment (at high speeds), it's very difficult, even from a theoretical standpoint, to make that a fully survivable accident."

Early next year, Amtrak is scheduled to get the first of 18 new electric high-speed train sets for testing. The first is scheduled to go into service between Washington and Boston in October 1999, with the final set being delivered in June of 2000.

The new trains, being assembled by a consortium headed by Bombardier of Canada, will replace current Metroliner service between Washington and New York, and will extend high-speed service New York to Boston, cutting an hour off the trip. The New England Association of Governors has estimated such an increase in train travel will free up 10 gates at Boston's Logan Airport.

The new trains will look somewhat like the ICE, with a locomotive on each end. But the trains will have tilt technology and will be built to the more rugged standards of U.S. railroads.

The German ICE train was tested in 1993 on the Northeast Corridor between Washington and New York when Amtrak was considering its new-train order. Because of less-stringent European crashworthiness standards, it ran under a special exemption from the FRA.

Historically, U.S. passenger trains have been built tougher because of the much tougher environment of the U.S. railway system. All European trains, including freight trains, are much lighter than trains on U.S. railroads, which have traditionally concentrated on the efficient haulage of thousands of tons of freight per train. Passenger cars, under standards set by the Association of American Railroads, were built to these heavier standards.

Bell and other officials with Amtrak and Bombardier shied away from direct comparisons with the ICE train. However, they pointed out that the U.S. trains will have crash-worthiness features not included on European trains, and will be built to standards as much as four times more stringent than the Europeans.