Red Line crash lawsuits settled by Metro; most NTSB recommendations fulfilled

Four years after the fatal Red Line crash, Metro says it has settled all lawsuits filed against the transit agency by families of the nine people killed. But few details of the settlements have been made public by Metro or by the federal court where the cases were filed.

The crash on June 22, 2009, killed the train operator and eight passengers and injured dozens more. It was the worst accident in Metro’s history, and it led to damning revelations about the system’s safety practices.

For more than a year, The Washington Post has been seeking information from Metro about its settlement of lawsuits stemming from the crash.

Metro waited nearly a year to respond to a public-records request by The Post, and when it did, in February, it provided little information. Citing exemptions in its public-records policy and a gag order by the judge, the agency said it would not release information about the cases that had gone to litigation.

Metro did disclose that it had paid a total of $1.6 million to settle 84 claims that did not go to litigation. The 84 payouts, through Metro’s Office of Third Party Claims, ranged from $333 to $150,000.

The cases that have been litigated are likely to have resulted in much larger payouts and to provide a clearer picture on the crash’s financial impact on the transit agency and its insurers.

The Post submitted an administrative appeal to Metro in February, asking it to reverse its decision to withhold the information. The paper also filed a motion in federal court in the District seeking to have the judge unseal records that detail the settlement amounts. Metro has said it will not act on the administrative appeal by The Post until the federal judge in the lawsuits, Reggie B. Walton, acts on The Post’s motion. The motion has not yet been decided.

With the settlement of the lawsuits, one difficult aspect of the crash’s aftermath has apparently concluded. But some of the crash’s survivors struggle with physical and emotional problems, according to lawyers and family members. Others fear using public transportation and worry that Metro hasn’t done enough to improve its safety.

Elizabeth Regan, 39, whose parents, Maj. Gen. David F. Wherley Jr. and his wife, Ann, of the District, were killed in the crash, said she has gone from being angry to being disappointed at Metro.

“In the first year, there was a lot of talk from [Metro’s] new executives about making change and doing the right thing,” she said. “That doesn’t seem to be true. . . . It is just disappointing that a loss of lives didn’t lead to change.”

Carolyn Jenkins of Culpeper, whose daughter Veronica DuBose was killed in the crash, said her daughter’s two young children are trying to make it without their mother.

“It is still very hard to deal with,” she said.

Jenkins has helped organize a candlelight vigil that will be held Saturday near the crash site. She said a non-disclosure agreement prohibits her from discussing how much Metro paid to settle the family’s lawsuit, but she characterized the amount as “very fair.”

Metro executives, federal safety officials and congressional leaders say the transit agency has made progress on safety. The National Transportation Safety Board said Metro has fulfilled 24 of the 34 recommendations issued after the crash, including repairing track circuit equipment.

“We certainly would have hoped we could have closed out all of our recommendations,” said the NTSB chairman, Deborah Hersman. “It is four years later, but we also understand there are a lot of competing issues and resource demands on Metro.”

The remaining NTSB recommendations include putting event recorders on the lead rail cars of a train and replacing the 1000 rail car series, which make up Metro’s oldest cars and whose structural weakness compounded the effects of the crash. Metro is expected to start replacing those cars early next year with new 7000 series cars, which have recorders.

Metro said that since the crash, it has installed new safety equipment and expanded employee training to help prevent accidents. It has tried to resolve some of the technical problems of its rail system by replacing switches and track circuit modules. Its biggest undertaking has been to improve its automatic train control system.

The NTSB said that a malfunction of the automatic train control system was the direct cause of the accident. The system failed to detect the presence of another train that was ahead but out of view. An approaching train proceeded at full speed and crashed into the train ahead. Since then, Metro trains have been run in the less-efficient manual mode. Metro has not said when it expects to return to automatic controls.

One of the hardest things to fix, transit experts said, has been the safety culture at the transit agency.

“They need to foster an open culture where employees feel comfortable to report safety” issues, Hersman said. “I know Metro is working on that. Those things take time. We’d like to see them move faster.”

Metro recently said it is starting a program that will allow employees to anonymously report safety incidents that would be considered “close calls” to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Metro continues to have safety breakdowns and problems dealing with emergencies, including several incidents in the past year.

In two instances, riders aboard stranded trains have taken it upon themselves to exit the trains between stations, creating a hazardous situation on the tracks. In May, a train fire at the Silver Spring station caused widespread confusion. And last week, the agency reported a spike in train operators running red signals.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), who has been a critic of Metro and pushed to establish national oversight and standards for the public transit agency, isn’t satisfied with Metro’s efforts.

“People’s patience is wearing thin,” she said. “They continue to worry about riding Metro with fears of train evacuations, broken escalators, single-trackings and signal problems. Metro must show it values its riders. It must have a sense of urgency around safety and do a better job communicating how it is working to improve the system’s operational safety and reliability.”

Metro General Manager Richard Sarles said the recent issues are examples of how poorly maintained the rail system has been over the past few decades. He said that his aggressive $5 billion capital-improvement push is making the system better but that it takes time.

Sarles said recent problems are not, however, signs of safety troubles.

“It is an example of a better safety culture,” he said.

“We’re reporting incidents,” he said. “We’re taking action.”

Still, some watchdogs are cautious.

The NTSB’s Hersman said those “smaller events” are a message to Metro that “they have to pay attention to safety.” Although those events didn’t “result in fatalities,” Hersman said, “they’re telling them that there are issues that need their focus.

“They are precursors and warning signs,” she said. “It takes one catastrophic red-signal violation to result in a fatality.”

I'm a Washington Post reporter, working an early morning shift that deals with crime, lottery winners, traffic, you name it.
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