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NTSB Finds Metro Unprepared for Runaways

Probing Crash, Agency Urges Revisions to Better Instruct Drivers if Trains Roll Backward

By Annie Gowen and Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 23, 2004; Page B01

The National Transportation Safety Board said yesterday that its investigation into the Nov. 3 crash on Metro's Red Line shows that operators are ill-informed about what to do if their trains begin rolling backward too quickly.

The safety board said two memos written by Metro's management in the week after the crash -- which involved a runaway train -- gave safety guidance that was "too broad."

Findings in Probe of Metro Crash

The National Transportation Safety Board yesterday issued an emergency recommendation to Metro as the board continues to investigate the Nov. 3 crash at the Woodley Park station. These are some of the findings.

What happened: When automatic controls are in place, a rollback protection feature applies brakes. The train that rolled backward Nov. 3 was being controlled manually. The operator said he tried to stop the rollback by applying forward power.

What tests showed: Forward power works only if the train is rolling back at 2 mph or less. The runaway train may have been moving backward at more than 30 mph.

What Metro knew: Train operators, the training instructor for train operations and the operations control center supervisors interviewed by investigators "were apparently unaware that this feature [rollback protection] is generally not available when a train is being operated manually." No specific information had been provided to train operators regarding the proper management of such a rollback.

Recommended action for Metro: Revise safety memos issued after the crash because they do not describe how fast or how far a train may roll back before brakes are required to stop it.

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Further, the NTSB said in its "urgent safety recommendation," many train operators, supervisors and even a training instructor were mistakenly under the impression that all Metro trains had a computerized system that would stop them from rolling back while being operated manually. In fact, 70 of Metro's 940 trains have this protection.

"We just feel this is a matter that needs to be corrected immediately for safer operation for the trains," said NTSB spokesman Terry Williams.

Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said that starting "as soon as humanly possible," Metro supervisors would meet with each driver to review emergency braking procedures.

"Clearly, we believe our workforce is very familiar with their trains and their abilities," Farbstein said. "What we're going to be doing is conducting face-to-face communication with them to ensure that we're doing everything we can to make sure there is no miscommunication and people are as aware as they can possibly be."

On Nov. 3, a train without passengers and under manual control had just passed through the Woodley Park station when it began to roll back, setting it on a crash course with a train carrying about 70 passengers that was in the station. Twenty people were injured and the Red Line was hobbled for days.

The operator told investigators that he applied power to stop the train from rolling back, then tried frantically to brake, to no avail.

NTSB investigators tested a similar six-car train and found that applying power would stop a train from rolling back only if it were traveling at 2 mph or less. Investigators have said the runaway train probably was traveling at least 30 mph before it struck the other train.

On Nov. 7 and 9, Metro issued safety memos to train operators advising them that rollback protection, the computerized system that senses rolling and brakes the train, does not function on most train cars when they are under the operator's control.

NTSB said in its recommendation to Metro's chief executive, Richard A. White, that the agency should "immediately" revise its directions to train operators to include more specific instructions and training on handling emergency rollbacks.

Metro trains are designed to be run automatically by computers and have rollback protection under that system. But in special conditions, such as bad weather, the automatic function is suspended to give operators greater control over speed and braking.

In October, Metro told operators to run trains manually in the middle of the day during the week and all day weekends to sharpen their skills.

NTSB is continuing its investigation into the cause of the crash and is examining whether the operator of the runaway train applied the brakes in time. It often issues emergency recommendations during investigations. Its final recommendations are followed 80 percent of the time, Williams said.

After a fatal crash in 1996, the NTSB recommended that Metro reinforce the structure of its rail cars to improve their ability to withstand a crash. Citing cost and safety concerns, the transit system did not follow that recommendation.

Jack Corbett, a lawyer and co-founder of the MetroRiders.org passenger advocacy group, said Metro should respond to the NTSB's recommendations immediately.

"These are very serious issues," Corbett said. "Metro can pass along NTSB's clarifying guidance information to its train operators quickly and at low cost. This safety information can be put into place almost immediately."

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