Safety Board Faults Metro in Fatal Crash

By Alice Reid and Stephen C. Fehr
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 30, 1996; 5:20 AM

A fatal subway crash occurred because Metro relied on a flawed computer system to run trains and because agency workers were reluctant to challenge orders, even to prevent an accident, a federal report released yesterday said.

In a blunt criticism of Metro's generally well-regarded rail operation, the National Transportation Safety Board said the January accident exposed a 20-year-old defect in the computer-controlled system that operates trains, a flaw that could have caused a far more serious accident and killed hundreds of people. For two decades, the report said, Metro's train brakes had not been set with enough pressure to consistently stop computer-controlled trains on wet tracks.

The board's report also accused Metro managers and regional directors of not taking safety seriously enough on the 89.5-mile rail system, which carries nearly 275,000 people each weekday. Metro managers said yesterday that they have made changes to solve the braking problems.

Operator Darel W. Callands, 48, was killed the evening of Jan. 6 when his computer-controlled train was unable to stop on icy tracks and streaked past the platform at the Shady Grove station, plowing into a parked train. Two passengers on board escaped injury in the crash, which occurred as a snowstorm was hitting the Washington area.

Although Callands's train had slid past two other station platforms just before the crash -- and was traveling at 75 mph, well above the system's speed limit of 59 mph -- Metro's control center told him to continue automatic operation. For 20 years, Metro had required operators to go to manual control in bad weather so they could control train speeds and braking directly.

But on the evening of the crash, Metro controllers were following orders from then-Deputy General Manager Fady P. Bassily, who two months earlier had reversed the manual operation policy and told operators to run trains automatically, even in bad weather.

The automatic system applies brakes more gradually than a typical train operator does; Metro engineers hoped it would result in less wear on wheels. But Bassily's order -- which investigators said he issued without telling his superiors at Metro -- exposed the fact that Metro's train brakes weren't reliable in stopping automatically controlled trains in bad weather.

"The bottom line of this is, the . . . safety responsibility was handed off to the computer, and we saw the outcome," NTSB Chairman Jim Hall said. "The operator was operating within the rules, and everyone sat and watched the computer take him right into an accident."

In the report, federal investigators described Metro's management culture as "military" and stifling to those who might take initiative to make improvements. They said Metro's control center was deficient in its performance the night of the crash, in part because controllers feared that overriding Bassily's orders could cost them their jobs.

The controllers, the report said, were discouraged from using "their own experience, knowledge and judgment to make decisions involving safety."

At a news conference yesterday afternoon, Metro General Manager Richard A. White and several board members defended the safety of the subway system but acknowledged that mistakes were made leading up to the accident.

White, a daily Metro commuter who came to Washington two months ago after heading San Francisco's transit system, said it was "highly improbable" such an accident could occur again.

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