August 22, 2012 — A CSX train derailed alongside a parking lot in Ellicott City, Maryland, yesterday just after midnight. Authorities say the train, which was hauling coal from West Virginia, derailed and fell off a bridge, killing two 19 year-old women who were hanging out on a walkway next to the tracks. Officials say that the first 21 of the train’s 80 cars flipped and spilled thousands of tons of coal.
Investigators have not yet determined the cause of the derailment. They know that the emergency brakes were applied automatically when the air line used to pressurize the braking system was disconnected, but they don’t know whether that played a role in the derailment. Determining the cause of the accident could take several weeks. Clean up could also take weeks, as crews must remove the derailed railroad cars, thousands of tons of coal, and several vehicles in parking lot under the bridge.
The tragic accident is bringing attention to a long history of derailments and accidents in Maryland. It is CSX railroad’s third accident in Maryland this month. On August 8, 40 residents of Woodstock had to be evacuated when a single car derailed. On the same day, a CSX train and a vehicle collided in Rosedale, causing injury to the vehicle’s driver.
CSX has also reported 20 derailments in Maryland since the beginning of 2010. Most of them were not significant, but two received widespread media attention. In 2006, a CSX tanker carrying ammonia derailed and forced the evacuation of 100 homes. One of the most notable CSX derailment incidents occurred in 2001, when 60 cars derailed in a 100 year-old tunnel below Baltimore, sparking a massive chemical leak and fire that paralyzed activity in Baltimore and stopped railroad traffic on the East Coast for nearly a week.
Senator Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) said, “I urge the NTSB to conduct its investigation thoroughly and quickly to ensure the safety of Maryland communities and provide answers for the families grieving today.”
Railroad safety experts say that derailments are often the result of poor track conditions or poorly maintained tracks. They can also be caused by human error, bad weather, shifting loads, and equipment malfunction. CSX operates their trains on about 21,000 miles of track in 23 states, mostly in the eastern United States and Canada.
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