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Red Line Train Operator Used Brakes in Failed Bid to Slow Six-Car Train

Experts suspect failure of signal system or operator error in yesterday's deadly Red Line collision. NTSB investigators are on scene today gathering more evidence. Video by Anna Uhls/The Washington Post, photos by AP

The force of the impact sheared the lead car of Train 112, pushing part of it onto the roof of the trailing car of Train 214 and slamming the rest into the body of Train 214. Two-thirds of Train 112's lead car was crushed, Hersman said.

After a Rohr train telescoped during a 2004 crash at the Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan Station, the NTSB recommended that Metro retire the Rohrs or strengthen their frames to prevent collapse. But the transit agency declined, saying that the cars make up one-third of the fleet and that Metro could not afford to mothball them ahead of their planned retirement in 2014, and that retrofitting would be costly and impractical. The NTSB, which makes safety recommendations but has no enforcement authority, disagreed with Metro's stance, calling it "unacceptable" at the time.

Yesterday, Hersman again questioned the safety of the Rohr cars and blamed Metro for failing to act. "We recommended to [Metro] to either retrofit those cars or phase them out of service," she said. "Those concerns were not addressed."

Metro uses 290 1000 series cars, which make up more than 25 percent of its 1,126-car fleet.

Graham said replacing the cars would cost almost $1 billion, money that Metro does not have. Metro is the only major transit system in the country without a source of dedicated funds. The agency appeals every year to the District, Virginia and Maryland for funding, a situation that makes long-term planning difficult.

The NTSB also recommended that Metro install data recorders, similar to the black boxes found in airplanes, in all of its cars after the 2004 crash. Although the agency installed recorders in some of its newest cars, the Rohr cars did not have them -- a condition that Hersman also called unacceptable.

Metro officials also did not install critical software revisions that would have allowed investigators to determine whether the operator had applied the emergency brakes and the train's speed during braking, according to a source knowledgeable about the braking systems. Investigators might be able to determine whether the emergency brakes were deployed based on physical evidence.

Metro's automated system is built around electronic relays on the trains and buried along the track that allow onboard computers to control speeds and stop trains from getting too close to one another. Over the past decade, Metro has struggled with troublesome relays. The agency tore out all 20,000 trackside relays in 1999 after discovering that a small portion designed to last 70 years were failing after 25.

The manufacturer, Alstom Signaling, agreed to replace the relays at a cost to Metro of about $8 million. None of the new relays have failed, one Metro official said.

The NTSB and the Federal Transit Administration have criticized Metro for failing to act aggressively to address safety problems, especially at the time of a 1996 crash at Shady Grove that killed a train operator.

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