Metro officials to detail cause of Green Line derailment

July 11, 2012

Metro officials are expected to provide new details Thursday about the derailment that shut down a stretch of the Green Line last weekend in Maryland — a mishap that has heightened questions about the transit authority’s safety practices.

The derailment came three days after scores of passengers fled a stranded Green Line train in Maryland. That incident also is expected to be discussed Thursday when members of the Metro board’s safety and security committee are briefed.

Both incidents came during a period of oppressively hot weather, and Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said high temperatures probably caused three cars on a Green Line train to derail Friday afternoon near the West Hyattsville station.

After baking in 99-degree weather, a portion of the track apparently buckled. It took Prince George’s County rescue workers about an hour to clear the train and lead the 55 passengers through a nearby tunnel and out of a ventilation shaft that serves as an emergency exit. No injuries were reported.

But since announcing Saturday that heat was the probable cause of the derailment, Metro has declined to provide additional details, including when the stretch of track was last inspected.

The Tri-State Oversight Committee, which investigates Metro accidents, is looking into both Green Line incidents. But the committee said Metro, which is typically required to submit preliminary reports within three days, had been granted an extension until Thursday.

Friday’s derailment marked the second time in three months that one of Metro’s trains jumped the track with passengers aboard. In April, an outbound Blue Line train carrying 1,000 passengers derailed at Rosslyn. The cause of that incident was human error — a switch was not property clamped — and an employee involved in the incident was fired, Stessel said.

Derailments occur in many rail systems, and in recent years, some systems, such as those in Boston, Chicago and San Francisco, have experienced two derailments in close succession, as Metro has this year. But whether the timing represents more than a coincidence is difficult to determine.

“It’s hard to say whether it’s a trend,” said Keith Holloway, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board.

According to federal statistics and Metro, between 2008 and the first part of 2012, there were 35 derailments among six of the major U.S. subway systems — Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, New York, San Francisco and Washington. Metro has had six during that period, including the incident Friday. San Francisco and Boston each had five derailments in that time, New York had seven and Chicago had 12.

When measured by 100­ million passenger miles — a standard basis of comparison — Boston and Chicago have the highest rate of derailments in recent years among the six systems compared. The San Francisco and Washington systems fall in the middle of the six, followed by New York and Atlanta.

The numbers, which transit authorities report to the federal government, include only derailments that happen during regular service hours and do not take into account incidents that may have happened in rail yards or when trains are out of regular service.

Metro’s safety record has been under scrutiny since the 2009 Red Line crash. Although the agency has made some improvements, problems remain for the transit agency, which serves 700,000 rail riders a day.

Metro officials know but have declined to say when that section of the track was last inspected, saying this and other details will be released during Thursday’s meeting. Metro’s entire track system is inspected twice a week, but the transit authority had stepped up inspections because of the high temperatures, Stessel said. The authority also can slow trains during excessive heat spells as a precaution. No such limits were in place at the time of the derailment, but shortly after the incident, officials slowed trains to a maximum of 35 miles per hour on above-ground sections of track.

Metro board member Mort Downey, who chairs the safety and security committee, said he is particularly concerned about the first incident last week. According to one account, passengers sweltered on a hot car for at least 15 minutes before some decided to exit on their own. Another passenger told The Washington Post’s Dr. Gridlock that riders received conflicting information from officials about whether it was safe for them to evacuate the train.

“I’m not sure we’ll ever get to the bottom of [what happened],” Downey said. But whether it was Metro employees or passengers who initiated the evacuation, Downey said, board members want to ensure workers are giving clear instructions and directions to riders.

The recent disruptions have some passengers considering backup plans.

Jerome Chambers, 35, boards Metro in West Hyattsville most days, and Friday’s derailment made a big impression on him. “I just happened to take the bus that day,” he said. “This makes me want to take the bus more.”

Chambers hasn’t been thrilled to hear of service disruptions so soon after this month’s fare increase. “I think you should get your money’s worth,” he said. “I think that means the trains should run on time.”

Although she wasn’t affected by last week’s delays, Barbara Barnas of West Hyattsville said she recently looked up which bus routes would get her to her job in Anacostia.

“You never know,’’ she said. “It’s better safe than sorry.”

Dan Keating contributed to this report.

Lori Aratani writes about how people live, work and play in the D.C. region for The Post’s Transportation and Development team.
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