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OFF THE RAILS Preventable Problems

Safety Warnings Often Ignored at Metro

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By Jo Becker and Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, June 6, 2005

Second of four articles

On a clear and frigid night in January 2003, the last car of a Blue Line train jumped the tracks outside Reagan National Airport, smashed into the third rail and sheared an iron railing, sparks flying, before the 216-ton train shuddered to a stop on a bridge 30 feet above the ground.

The 46 passengers were evacuated without injury, but the derailment caused $100,000 in damage. And like most of the seven other derailments that followed in the next 20 months, it might have been prevented had Metro listened to warnings from its employees and safety officials, according to internal investigations.

Time and again, records show, the public transit agency has disregarded the advice of experts and failed to address safety issues. A Washington Post review of internal Metro documents, including accident investigations dating back eight years, found that:

· In a 20-month period ending in October, eight subway trains derailed -- twice as many as in the previous three years combined. Despite the increase, officials failed to put in place recommended safeguards.

· Metro is experiencing an increasing number of rail breaks, which can cause a train to leave its tracks, and inspectors missed the flaws that led to the breaks. Metro's auditors warned the agency that the department charged with inspecting the rails wasn't doing its job, but officials did little to address the problem.

· Trains are increasingly unable to stop where they should at station platforms, instead coming to rest inside darkened tunnels. The number of incidents grew from 104 in fiscal 1999 to 583 last year, despite warnings from two federal agencies to get the problem under control because it could be indicative of serious safety hazards.

Riding the subway is still far safer than getting behind the wheel of a car. Nationally, 14 people were killed and 42 injured last year in rail transit crashes or derailments, a figure that does not include suicides, federal government records show. Metro suffered no such fatalities in that time period. But the system accounted for nearly half of the nationwide injuries as a result of a November accident, when two trains crashed at the Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan Station.

The accident sent 20 passengers to the hospital with minor injuries. Experts said Metro was lucky that one of the two trains wasn't carrying passengers and that no one was killed. The crash was Metro's first in nearly nine years and is being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, which has found fault with the way Metro trains its operators.

Metro's recent performance is cause for concern, former safety board member Susan Coughlin said. "It's indicative of systematic oversight problems which, if left unaddressed, could produce a catastrophic accident," she said.

The safety of its nearly 660,000 daily passengers is Metro's most fundamental responsibility. But the agency is able to leave safety issues unaddressed without fear of formal sanction because no state, regional or federal regulators have direct power over it.

Although the federal government oversees air travel, Amtrak, ferries and other modes of mass transportation, it has no jurisdiction over subway safety. A regional safety panel, the Tri-State Oversight Committee, also has no regulatory authority.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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