Metro not ready to run trains in automatic mode, official says

Metro is not at a point where it can run its trains in automatic train control, according to a Metro board member.

Mort Downey, who heads the Metro board’s safety and security committee, said a review of the transit agency’s automatic train operations done by an outside consultant — Hatch-Mott MacDonald — found that while they were “comfortable with the system” and said it “has integrity” they believed Metro was “not yet at a point where [automatic train operation] could resume because there are a number of fixes that are necessary but haven’t been completed.”

“We know what we have to do, but we are not at a point to flip the switch,” Downey said.

Metro has been running its trains in manual mode since the deadly 2009 Red Line crash near the Fort Totten stop, in which nine people died.


After a Red Line crash in 2009, Metro began running its trains in manual mode. (James M. Thresher/For The Washington Post)

The Metro system was designed to run using automatic train controls, which use audio frequency track circuits to control speed and detect how far trains are apart. It is considered by some transit experts, to deliver a more efficient and consistent ride because it controls more of how a train speeds up and brakes.

But a malfunction in Metro’s automatic train control system was blamed as the direct cause of the Fort Totten crash, according to a final report on the incident from the National Transportation Safety Board.

The system did not detect the presence of a train and directed another to proceed toward it at full speed. However, it also said that chronic failures of track circuitry, a negligent safety attitude at Metro and weak oversight made the crash inevitable.

Since the 2009 crash, Metro has been working to develop and test a new automatic system. At the recommendation of the NTSB, Metro also has embarked on an intensive schedule of replacing track circuits and other equipment.

The transit agency has spent $1.5 million in new test equipment for maintenance and engineering as part of replacing its automatic train control system.

Downey said Metro still needs to work to replace track circuits on the system. He said the latest report he had received from Metro’s staff was that the work on replacing track circuits are about 70 percent done. Metro also needs to install equipment on its rail cars to help detect how the rail car communicates with the track circuit, according to Downey.

Rob Troup, Metro’s No. 2 who oversees its rail operations, is expected to brief the board Thursday on the agency’s work to return to automated train operation.

An 18-page presentation of his report on Metro’s Web site, however, leaves out the biggest question many watchdogs and riders have – When Metro will go back to automatic train operations?

Downey said  no time frame has been given, and “that’s deliberate.”

“Everyone wants to make sure everything is in good shape before making that decision,” he said.

Dana Hedgpeth is the Washington Post’s lead reporter in covering the Metro rail and bus systems in the D.C. region and the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA) that runs them.
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Robert Thomson · June 11, 2013