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Dozing Operator Blamed in Rail Crash

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By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 24, 2006

The operator of the runaway Metro train that rolled backward for 78 seconds and slammed into another train at the Woodley Park Station in November 2004 failed to brake because he was very likely asleep, federal safety officials said yesterday.

The crash, which occurred in the middle of the day, injured about 20 people and caused about $3.5 million in damage. It hobbled the Red Line, the system's busiest, for days.

No one was killed, but investigators calculated that at least 79 would have died if the runaway train had been full of passengers.

"The only thing that kept this accident from being catastrophic was the time of day that it occurred," said Debbie Hersman, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board.

While blaming the accident on human error, the NTSB investigators said a contributing factor was the lack of computerized software that would stop a runaway train, even if it was under manual control and the operator failed to use the brakes.

In presenting their findings from the 14-month investigation into the Nov. 3 accident, investigators also raised several concerns about the safety of nearly one-third of Metro's rail cars, the oldest in its 952-car fleet. Metro is the second-busiest subway system in the nation, with riders making about 700,000 trips daily.

The investigators recommended that Metro equip all existing and future trains with rollback protection when trains are being operated manually. They also said Metro should retire its oldest cars earlier than the scheduled 2012 date or spend a significant amount of money to strengthen them in the event of a crash.

Acting NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker called the Metro system safe and said the recommendations adopted by the board were intended to "make the system safer."

Metro trains are designed to be operated by computers, which control their speed and stopping. Trains are operated manually during the morning and evening rush hours because of problems with the computerized system, which sometimes causes them to overrun platforms. Trains are also run manually when they are empty and moving from one rail yard to another, as was the case with the runaway train.

The Metro system is designed with rollback protection, in which electronic signals built into the track recognize that a train is moving backward and notify computers on the train to brake.

The runaway train's cars were among the 298 manufactured by Rohr Industries about 30 years ago. None of the Rohr cars has the computerized system that can stop them from rolling backward in manual. Also, these cars, Metro's oldest, are susceptible to telescoping, which occurred during the Woodley Park accident. That happens when the force of a crash causes the cars to collapse into themselves, much the way the cylinders of a telescope fold together. The runaway train plowed backward into an occupied train and climbed onto the stationary train.

After two Metro trains collided in a fatal accident in 1996, the safety board recommended that Metro strengthen the skeleton of its rail cars. Metro did not follow that recommendation, saying it would be too expensive and disruptive to carry out, according to NTSB records.


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