An out-of-service Metro train lost its brakes in a tunnel between the Woodley Park and Cleveland Park stations yesterday, rolled backward down a steep grade at about 30 mph and slammed into another train, sending plumes of black smoke into the station and passengers running for their lives.
The runaway six-car train came to rest after one of its cars climbed up onto the roof of the other train, which had just picked up passengers at Woodley Park and was poised to enter the tunnel. The impact of the crash, at 12:49 p.m., sheared the aluminum shell off one rail car and sent 20 people to hospitals with minor injuries.
An empty Red Line train crashed into a stopped train at the Woodley Park-Zoo Station in Northwest Washington.
(Michel duCille -- The Washington Post)
The crash shut down one of the two tracks on that section of the Red Line and forced the closing of the Woodley Park Station. Trains moving in both directions shared a single track between Cleveland Park and Dupont Circle yesterday afternoon and evening.
Richard A. White, Metro's chief executive, said last night that the Woodley Park Station was expected to reopen this morning, with trains running on a single track between the Van Ness and Dupont Circle stations. He added that workers might have to wait until after after service ends tonight to remove the damaged trains, and that he does not expect full service to be restored until at least tomorrow morning. Free shuttles will run between the Friendship Heights Station and Farragut Square, and off-peak fares will be offered throughout the day on the Red Line, he said.
Transit officials and witnesses said the toll could have been worse if not for the quick actions of Calvert Sawyers, who was operating the train that was stopped in the station. He saw the red taillights of the other train growing bigger in the dark and realized the train was coming toward him.
Sawyers, 58, a 26-year Metro employee, shouted: "Everybody off this train as fast as possible -- run if you have to!" according to Metro spokesman Ray Feldmann. Sawyers, complaining of shortness of breath, was among those taken to the hospital.
Investigators are focused on why two safety systems apparently failed. The operator of the runaway train told Metro officials that he tried to apply the brakes as his train reversed direction but that they did not respond.
Debbie Hersman of the National Transportation Safety Board said last night that the board would examine the train's "braking system, the propulsion system, the repair history, maintenance and track records." She estimated damage to the two cars at $1.5 million.
The Metro system also is designed with something called rollback protection, in which electronic signals built into the track are supposed to recognize that a train is moving backward and notify computers on the train to engage the brakes automatically. It is unclear why the rollback protection did not stop the runaway train from striking the train in the station.
Experts in train-control systems said the type of crash that occurred yesterday is a rarity among automated subways.
"Metro has a fully automated train-control system, and the fundamental thing it does is to make sure trains don't come together and trains don't reverse direction and come back at each other," said Tom Sullivan, president of California-based Transportation Systems Design. "It's so fundamental to the design, I cannot possibly imagine any failure of the signal system that would allow this to happen."
Sullivan said it was possible that the rollback protection kicked in and ordered the train to engage its brakes but that the brakes were either turned off or not functioning properly. In emergencies, the train operator can throw what's known as a parking brake to stop a train. Metro officials could not say whether the operator used that last-resort brake. That operator has 10 months of experience as a Metrorail operator.
Train 703, the train in the tunnel, was en route from the Brentwood rail yard to the Shady Grove rail yard, where it would have been turned around and sent into service, Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said. The train had not exhibited any mechanical problems, she said.
The point in the tunnel where the runaway train started rolling back was about 2,000 feet from the Woodley Park Station and on a 4-degree grade, which is the steepest in the Metro or any subway system. Transit officials said the train apparently picked up speed as it rolled downhill.