No Guardrail Where Train Left Track

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Yellow Line train that derailed Thursday night went off the tracks at a curved section of rail that did not have a guardrail to keep the train wheels on the tracks. Federal investigators had said such sections posed safety hazards, and Metro had been planning to replace that section before the accident, officials said.

Officials said they don't know whether the accident at a downtown Washington subway station was caused by problems with the track, the rail car or other factors. Metro is conducting an investigation, and officials said they could not provide information about the rail car's maintenance, the speed of the train or anything about the train operator.

The six-car train had unloaded its passengers at the Mount Vernon Square Metro station when it derailed about 6:15 p.m. as it switched from the northbound track to a pocket track, located between the two main tracks. The train was going to reverse and head back downtown during rush hour. The rear wheels of the last car derailed as it headed into the pocket track. No injuries were reported.

The derailment was the second time since January 2007 that a Metro train went off the tracks at the station. Both accidents involved the same type of rail car, a troubled series that makes up about 17 percent of Metro's 1,128-car fleet. The cars have been involved in at least 13 of 20 derailments since 2001.

Also Thursday, a vacuum truck derailed twice on the Orange Line in Northern Virginia. Officials said the two incidents were not related. But they both caused major delays for passengers.

In the January 2007 accident, a Green Line train derailed, injuring 23 people. In that accident, the fifth car of a six-car train went off the tracks as it traveled through an unguarded curved section to cross from one track to another. An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board found that installing a guardrail at the curved section, known as a No. 8 turnout, would have prevented the train's wheels from derailing.

Among the board's recommendations was that Metro install guardrails at 100 other such curved sections of track that need safeguards. After the hearing, Metro officials pledged to make guardrails a top priority. Metro has installed guardrails in at least 83 trouble spots.

Mark Rosenker, acting chairman of the NTSB, said federal safety investigators have been in contact with Metro officials. "We've asked for additional information," he said. "We want to know exactly what happened. We are interested in it, obviously, and want to understand what happened so we can make decisions about what we need to follow up with." At the moment, the board is "not initiating a full investigation."

Metro has replaced the unguarded turnout where the 2007 derailment occurred. That work was done in May. Because the station is on the Green and Yellow lines, and because the work took place at the height of baseball season, Metro had to schedule the work over four weekends to minimize disruptions to fans taking the Green Line to the Navy Yard Station for baseball games. The labor and personnel for that project cost about $475,000.

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