Workers and Officials Differ on Metro Crash

By Stephen C. Fehr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 9, 1996; 5:57 AM

Some Metro employees suggested yesterday that the death of a 48-year-old Metro train operator Saturday could have been prevented if the train had been traveling at a slower speed into the Shady Grove station before it crashed into a parked train.

Metro officials identified the operator as Darel Callands, of Temple Hills, a Metro employee since 1975.

Callands was operating a Red Line train into Shady Grove about 11 p.m. Saturday on snow-slickened tracks. While braking, the train slid past the platform and slammed into a parked train farther down the tracks, killing Callands, Metro officials said. Neither of the two passengers aboard the moving train was hurt.

Two Metro employees, who declined to be identified but said they had knowledge of the accident, said that Callands's train had experienced similar skidding problems at the two previous stations, Twinbrook and Rockville, because the train was going too fast.

The employees said Callands had requested permission from Metro's central train control in downtown Washington to operate the train manually into Shady Grove instead of allowing the automatic controls to guide the train. That would have allowed Callands to operate the train at a slower speed, which he considered safer. But permission was denied, the workers said.

One of the employees said the train was going as fast as 75 mph into Shady Grove.

Metro officials, citing the investigation, declined to release information about the speed of the moving train or the distance between the two trains when one started to brake.

Metro trains are controlled automatically by computers, which determine from sensors along the track such things as the trains' speed, braking and distance from one another. The automatic controls are designed to prevent crashes, particularly those caused by driver error, which is why accidents such as Saturday's are so rare.

Callands was the first train operator to die in a Metro accident in the system's history, and his was the first death on a moving train since three people were killed in a subway derailment in 1982.

A train operator has the ability to override the controls through a switch inside the cab and is supposed to do so if the operator believes passenger safety is being jeopardized.

However, Metro officials confirmed that they recently issued an order requiring operators to obtain permission from central control before overriding the automatic system.

Metro Deputy General Manager Fady P. Bassily, responding through a Metro spokeswoman, denied that Callands had asked to operate the train manually but declined to elaborate, citing the ongoing investigation.

The National Transportation Safety Board will join the inquiry, in part, a spokesman said, because the agency is concerned that a transit system designed with so many safeguards could have such an accident.

Even if permission to slow the train down manually had been requested and denied, transit officials said, it is up to the operator to drive the train at a speed the person considers the safest for passengers. "To override is not something central control has to do. The operator himself or herself can do that in the train," said spokeswoman Patricia A. Lambe.

But one of the Metro employees said that train operators have been under pressure to avoid operating trains manually. The recent Metro directive stated that operators were overriding the trains' automatic controls too often. The manual operation of trains by operators, it said, had contributed to frequent replacement of wheels because of excessive braking.

One of the Metro employees speculated that Callands could have been afraid to challenge the directive.

Lambe said, "There would be no repercussions for anyone who chose to override the train controls for legitimate reasons."

Transit officials will have to explain to investigators why operators have been requesting to drive trains manually in a system that relies so much on automatic controls.

Callands's wife, Mary Callands, said yesterday that she had not been told any details of the accident. Callands also is survived by three adult sons.

© 1996 The Washington Post Company