Metro Says Operator Wasn't First to Detect Derailment

At approximately 2:45 p.m., one wheel of an Orange Line train derailed between the Rosslyn and Courthouse stations. No injuries were reported but passengers were on the train for close to two hours. Video by Anna Uhls/
By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The operator of the Orange Line train that derailed Monday traveled for more than a half-mile without realizing anything was wrong before being alerted by another Metro employee, a veteran supervisor who happened to be riding the train, General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. said yesterday.

If the supervisor had not flagged the problem, "clearly there would be more damage to the track bed area," Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said. But she declined to speculate on the potential for injuries. There were no injuries in Monday's incident, and the 412 passengers were safely evacuated from the six-car train.

At some point, she said, after the front wheels of the third car went off the tracks, "it was only going to go so far." Although Metro's investigation is not complete, Catoe said he had no reason to believe operator error was involved.

Shortly after Train 905 pulled out of Rosslyn, the Metro supervisor "noticed something wrong with the ride" and called the operator, who stopped the train at 2:45 p.m., Catoe said. By then, it had gone 2,700 feet, officials said. The operator climbed out of the cab and, following procedure, inspected the track and walked around the train in the dark tunnel. About 15 minutes later, he reported to Metro's central control center that the front wheels of the third car had derailed, officials said.

At 3:02 p.m., Metro's control center notified first responders. Within two minutes, Arlington County firefighters were on the scene -- so many, in fact, that one passenger joked to others in her car that she hoped there were no fires in Arlington. By 4:25 p.m., all passengers were safely evacuated.

"Our employees and rescue personnel responded in a safe and timely manner, but I want to thank our customers and commend them for following [Metro's] instructions," Catoe said. "Our customers did what we asked them to do."

Catoe credited improved communication by Metro personnel and the cooperation of riders who stayed put for the relatively smooth evacuation. By contrast, he said, when a Chicago Transit Authority train derailed in a tunnel in July 2006, many passengers activated emergency doors and evacuated on their own, posing safety risks and delaying rescue.

Catoe said he believes he knows what caused the derailment but did not want to elaborate until all tests are completed. Metro will provide a copy of the incident report to the National Transportation Safety Board, but the federal agency is not conducting its own investigation, as it did after the January 2007 derailment of a Green Line train at Mount Vernon Square that injured 20 people.

That derailment occurred as the train moved through a curved section of track. Monday's derailment, the sixth in Metrorail's 31-year history, was on a straight stretch of track, officials said. The front wheels on the third car went off the tracks to the left, with the right wheels in between the running rails and the left wheels outside the rail, Metro officials confirmed.

Passengers aboard the train said they heard loud screeching noises and smelled burning. One rider also said she thought the train was traveling "pretty fast." Metro officials said they would not know the train speed until all information had been downloaded from the train's data recorders.

Normal service resumed yesterday morning after Metro personnel worked through the night to replace rail fasteners and cabling for the automatic train control system that moves trains. Officials said the track and third rail, which powers the trains, were not damaged.

But some parts of the track had loose hardware, according to a knowledgeable Metro source who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. Farbstein said it was not clear whether the hardware became loose before or after the derailment.

Also, the surface of the rail was flat in some spots, which is not conducive to train steering, according to the source. The surface is supposed to be raised, the source said.

There also were spare pieces of track laid out in the area, but Metro officials said no track was scheduled to be repaired. Instead, track fasteners and stud bolts, which typically last 17 to 19 years, were slated to be replaced, officials said.

The derailed car was removed from the tracks yesterday. The car is a 2000 series model, the second-oldest in the Metro fleet. That model and the 3000 series, both manufactured by Breda Costruzioni Ferroviarie, make up about a third of Metro's more than 1,100 cars. The cars have had ongoing problems with their primary suspension systems. Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel said the suspension is not an issue if the trains are maintained properly.

Researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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