The collision occurred on Monday night at a level crossing in Illinois, 50 miles south of Chicago. Many of those killed and injured were settling into their beds in a sleeper car, near the head of the train that was making the overnight journey from Chicago to New Orleans. The impact sent carriages and engines careening off the tracks. Some carriages were concertinaed to a fraction of their size and one of the engines was split in two.
"All of a sudden, everything just started crashing and catching on fire and people hollering and running. It was awful," said Blanche Jones, one of the passengers. "We were trying to get out. We couldn't find a way out. That was the most devastating thing of all."
Working overnight, emergency crews pulled 14 bodies from the train, called City of New Orleans, made famous by Arlo Guthrie in the folk song of the same name which described the old Illinois Central Line. Officials warned, however, that of the 216 who had been aboard the train, another four were still missing. By morning, "empty" had been spray-painted on those carriages free of passengers.
Amtrak is bedevilled by problems at level crossings. There are about 250,000 of them on its tracks across the country, and not all are equipped with barriers. Of the 245 Amtrak accidents reported in 1997, about half were the result of collisions with motor vehicles.
This crossing did have lights and barriers and officials were trying to determine yesterday whether they were working properly on Monday. The lorry driver survived the crash.
The train, which had 16 carriages in all, mostly double-decker passenger cars, would normally have been travelling at about 80mph along the stretch of track where the accident occurred. If the driver of the train saw the lorry, he still would have needed at least 10,000ft to halt the train.
Rescue workers were hampered during the night by thick smoke from fires in one of the carriages and one of the engines. Officials said 101 passengers and crew were taken to nearby hospitals for treatment. Of those, 11 were listed in critical condition yesterday, and 19 in serious condition.
Only last week, Amtrak unveiled a new high-speed train, modelled on the French TGV, which will begin serving its north-east corridor between Washington and Boston this autumn. The train will travel at speeds of more than 150mph, and Amtrak has been at pains to underline its safety.
Amtrak has struggled for years with low budgets and a patchy safety image. Its worst accident happened in September 1993, when a train plunged into a river in Alabama after a barge struck and destroyed a bridge pier. Forty-seven people died in the accident.Reuse content