Investigators hope analyzing electronic data from the Amtrak Downeaster and from the trash truck it collided with Monday might provide clues about what led to the fatal crash on Route 4 in North Berwick.

Amtrak authorities recovered recorded data from the locomotive that should reveal its speed and other factors leading up to the collision and its aftermath, similar to the black box in an aircraft. The train typically runs at 70 mph through the at-grade intersections in North Berwick, officials said, and the gates are designed to close at least 20 seconds before the train arrives.

State Police have the difficult job of trying to determine why the trash-hauling truck failed to stop before the crossing gates, putting it in the path of the oncoming train. The collision sparked a huge fireball and killed the truck driver, Peter Barnum, 35 of Farmington, N.H.

The truck, a 2009 Kenworth trash compactor, had been inspected by the state in December and cleared for service, said state and company officials. Skid marks stretch more than 200 feet heading into the intersection, which may give some clues as to how fast the truck was traveling. Police also are collecting cell phone records to see if Barnum was using one just before the crash. The truck was equipped with a global positioning system and police hope GPS records may shed light on the crash, said State Police spokesman Steve McCausland.

Barnum drove for Triumvirate Environmental, a Massachusetts company with a plant in Eliot. Barnum was driving a load of between 23 and 25 tons of municipal waste from Kittery to the MERC incinerator in Biddeford. Barnum has worked for the company since April and was familiar with the route, said spokesman Hugh Drummond. Barnum has a clean driving record for the past two years, Drummond said. The company has an above-average safety record, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

The company’s drivers typically use secondary roads in the summer to avoid potential traffic jams on the Maine Turnpike, Drummond said.

The collision ignited a fire in the locomotive, and flames seared the coach immediately behind it as smoke filled passenger compartments. There were 112 passengers spread between four coaches and a cafe car.

Shannon Williamson of Dover, N.H., was traveling from Haverhill, Mass., to Portland with her 4-year-old son, Jacob McClory. “The train filled with smoke and everything went black,” she said.

Once the train came to rest, a conductor and assistant conductor helped evacuate the cars and a food service employee provided passengers with water while they waited to be driven from the area.

The force of the collision badly damaged the locomotive and the engineer is lucky to be alive, said Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which operates the Downeaster service.

“The train was broken apart by the impact,” Quinn said, referring to the separation between the locomotive and the coaches, which kept the fire from spreading. “It was extremely traumatic. The window of the locomotive was broken out almost immediately.”

She said the engineer was “extremely fortunate” to get out alive.

“Once he got back on his feet again and was able to see and find his way to the back, after he leapt out of the burning locomotive, his concern was what do we do to help the passengers,” Quinn said.

Cliff Cole, Amtrak spokesman, said the railroad does not plan to release the names of the workers on board at the time of the crash.

The portion of Route 4 where the crash happened remained closed Tuesday while state and railroad workers cleaned up trash that littered the intersection and lined the tracks.

The crash investigation involves several agencies, with the North Berwick police leading the probe. Amtrak personnel were checking to make sure the railroad’s equipment operated properly and that staff followed procedures. Springfield Terminal Railway, which maintains the track, is checking to make sure the crossing equipment worked as intended. The State Police commercial vehicle enforcement unit and accident reconstruction team are focusing on the truck and the driver.

“There’s been no determination of an estimate of speed,” said McCausland. “It’s unclear why he didn’t stop in time. The truck cab was split in four pieces and some of it burned so I don’t know what we have to work with.”

The destruction of the train engine should not affect service. Amtrak already had spare engine and coaches in Portland in case any maintenance problems developed, so the passenger service was able to resume more quickly than it otherwise would have, Quinn said. The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which gets some state subsidy, contracts with Amtrak to provide the equipment and staff to run the passenger rail service. That means it is Amtrak’s responsibility to replace the coach, Quinn said.

“This is a loss for Amtrak. The equipment is tough to come by. It’s in demand,” Quinn said. “Right now we have enough to get by. If something breaks down, we don’t have a spare.”

Despite having to go slow through that area, Tuesday morning’s train was three minutes early arriving in Boston, Quinn said. All five daily round trips are operating, Quinn said.

Officials also are determining whether the warning lights and gates at the intersection operated as intended.

Warren Flatau, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, said his agency sent investigators to Maine yesterday to interview the crew, signal maintainers and to inspect the safety systems.

Flatau said the flashing lights and gates at railroad crossings are controlled by an electrical system that maintains an electric current in the tracks. The system engages when a train trips the circuit.

At that point, the lights at the crossing start flashing and the red and white gates start to drop.

Flatau said federal regulations require that no less than 20 seconds pass between the time the gates extend and when the train crosses the road. He said the interval is long enough for motorists to stop, but short enough that drivers don’t take the signals for granted.

“Driver behavior studies found that anything above (20 seconds) was an inducement for drivers to ignore the crossing. Drivers would become impatient,” Flatau said.

Federal rules require train operators to blast the train’s whistle 20 seconds before the train arrives at a crossing.

The North Berwick crossing also had a “constant warning time” system, which ensures motorists have the same amount of notice regardless of how fast the train is traveling. Freight trains on the line travel much slower than the passenger trains.

David Davis, who lives one house down from the intersection and witnessed the crash, said he wasn’t timing it, but 20 seconds seems a fair estimate of the time between when the crossing gates closed and the collision happened.

“I heard the bells and I knew the train was coming down shortly afterward, and then I heard the squeal of the tires and there was smoke coming out from under the trailer,” Davis said. “Then the train was right there and I saw he couldn’t stop.”

Some Amtrak passenger cars weigh as much as 148,00 pounds and locomotives can weigh 250,000 pounds, said Flatau.

The Downeaster trains, which typically include three or four coaches along with a locomotive cab car and cafe car, take about a half mile to stop, Quinn said.

Flatau said he does not believe a failure of the warning system played a role in Monday’s collision. Warning system failures are rare and account for only one or two accidents a year, he said.

The Federal Railway Administration, part of the Department of Transportation, oversees the safety of freight and passenger rail trains, including Amtrak and about two dozen commuter rail lines.

The warning systems are maintained and tested by the owner of the track, Springfield Terminal Railway, an affiliate of North Billerica, Mass.-based Pan Am Railways.

Rob Culliford, Pan Am’s senior vice president and general counsel, would not answer questions about the incident or the track maintenance there.


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