Federal Investigators Question Metro's Safety

Paramedics start to transport a pregnant woman who began having contractions after the Metro derailment at the Mount Vernon Square Station.
Paramedics start to transport a pregnant woman who began having contractions after the Metro derailment at the Mount Vernon Square Station. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Federal investigators took the rare step yesterday of questioning whether Metro is safe after a derailment Sunday that injured about 20 people and mirrored several accidents involving one of the system's most widely used rail cars.

"We will look at other incidents [involving] these cars and determine if there is a pattern," said Kitty Higgins, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is leading the investigation of the accident. "It raises questions for us about the safety system at Metro and whether there are larger issues at play."

Also yesterday, Metro officials acknowledged that it took 10 minutes for the first call to go through to 911 dispatchers, saying it took that long for the operator to walk to the back of the train, realize there had been a derailment and walk back to the cab to radio for help. About 60 people were stuck in the last two cars of the train at the Mount Vernon Square station in Northwest, waiting for rescuers who one rider said didn't arrive until about 45 minutes after the crash.

Metro officials declined yesterday to provide information about the injured riders or details of Sunday's incident and previous accidents. "Because the NTSB is the lead on the investigation, they own, so to speak, the details of the information that would be reviewed during the investigation," said Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein, who said service was normal yesterday.

Sunday's derailment followed a familiar pattern for Metro: It involved one of Metro's Series 5000 cars, which make up 20 percent of Metro's rail fleet, and it happened on a curve in the tracks that is not used regularly. Investigators are looking into the cars, the tracks and human error as possible causes of the accident.

Metro officials said Sunday that the accident occurred as the train switched from one track to the other just south of the station. All but one of the injuries were described Sunday by Metro officials as minor, although one passenger suffered a head injury and a pregnant woman began to experience contractions.

It was the fifth derailment involving 5000-series cars, which were manufactured by CAF Inc. of Spain and went into service in 2001, and at least the ninth for Metro in the past four years. A report on the first four derailments, issued in October 2004, said they took place on side tracks and involved trains with no passengers aboard that were operating at speeds of 5 to 10 mph and making tight turns on tracks that were not lubricated properly.

Proper lubrication is important because it helps prevent train wheels from climbing up and off the rail in tight turns, said Fred Goodine, Metro's assistant general manager for safety. Farbstein said Metro would not provide data on the last time the stretch of track involved in Sunday's derailment was inspected or lubricated.

After the other derailments, Goodine said a task force would look at possible changes to the cars or tracks. Metro managers also launched a separate study of the cars in 2004. Metro officials would not release those results yesterday.

Goodine said at the time that the probability of a derailment of this type on a main line was unlikely, largely because passengers would add weight to the cars. Sunday's six-car train carried 120 passengers.

Farbstein said that the system is safe and that Sunday's derailment was only the fifth with customers on board in 31 years of Metrorail service.

The CAF cars have been troubled from the start. Assembly plant problems led Metro to order the carmaker to shut down production at one point. After the cars emerged from the assembly line, they had software problems that led to malfunctioning doors and brakes. In 2002, a malfunctioning door on a CAF car caught an elderly woman by the arm and dragged her through Gallery Place Station until she was able to pull herself free. Also that year, a fire erupted in a heater on a CAF car, and it was discovered that many of the heaters were wired improperly. The total cost to Metro for the 192 CAF cars was $340 million.

Sunday's derailment is the latest in a string of high-profile accidents on Metro.

On Nov. 30, two workers were fatally struck by a Metro train while performing routine track inspection near Eisenhower Avenue Station in Alexandria. In May, a worker was struck and killed by a train at Dupont Circle Station, seven months after another worker died after he was hit by a train near the Braddock Road stop in Alexandria. And in November 2004, a collision between two trains at Woodley Park Station sent 20 passengers to the hospital.

NTSB investigators downloaded data yesterday from the first four cars of the train involved in the accident. The rail car that sustained the most damage when it came off the track and slammed into the tunnel wall remained in the tunnel yesterday and was scheduled to be removed overnight to a rail yard so investigators would have greater access.

Sunday's derailment occurred where switches and a short section of curved rails make it possible to move trains between inbound and outbound tracks. The front cars of the train apparently passed over the switch safely, but the wheels of the fifth car left the track. That car and all others remained upright. But as the fifth car tottered, its left side struck the nearby wall of the tunnel, according to accounts.

The train operator called Metro's control center as soon as the accident occurred. It took 10 minutes, however, to figure out the extent of the damage and that people were injured, officials said.

Derailments are rare on major transit systems. In the San Francisco area's BART system, eight derailments have occurred from 2002 through 2006, but only one incident was during regular service. There were no injuries.

New York's much larger system reported eight derailments from 2003 through 2006, but those numbers include only incidents that involved trains with passengers.

Charles Deegan, a Metro board member who represents Maryland, said the 5000-series cars have long been a concern, but "up to this point, they haven't jumped the track with anyone on it."

Brian Cudahy, a subway expert and former Federal Transit Administration official, said the question is whether the cars are just unreliable or dangerous. "There seems to be a commonality here, and it's going to take an expert to figure it out," he said. "Is this a pattern or five random incidents?"

The derailment did not keep many people away from the trains yesterday. Green Line passengers said they were concerned but not enough to change their commuting routine.

"I rely on it," said Jackie Johnson, 44, of Riverdale Park, who uses Metro daily with her two sons and was interviewed at the Mount Vernon Square station. "I hope to God nothing happens."

Douglas Hopper, 29, of Adams Morgan, said he was "not pleased" by the derailment but did not have a more convenient way to travel. "If trains are always being derailed, then I would think about the bus or walking."

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