Probe Finds Metro Control 'Anomalies'
Investigators Test Electronics Near the Scene Of Fatal Crash

By Lyndsey Layton, Maria Glod and Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 25, 2009

Federal investigators said yesterday that they found "anomalies" in a key component of the electronic control system along the Metro track north of Fort Totten, suggesting that computers might have sent one Red Line train crashing into another.

A senior Metro official knowledgeable about train operations said an internal report confirmed that the computer system appeared to have faltered.

Investigators stopped short yesterday of saying that the equipment malfunctioned or that it caused Monday's crash, which killed nine people and injured 80. But Debbie Hersman of the National Transportation Safety Board said investigators are looking closely at a 740-foot-long circuit near the crash site that malfunctioned during testing. "These circuits are vital," she said. "It's a signal system. It's providing information, authorization and speed commands to the following train."

Investigators are continuing to run tests, trying to determine whether the circuit failed to detect the train that was idling on the tracks north of the station and was rear-ended by a southbound train shortly after 5 p.m. Monday.

Hersman said investigators are also examining the actions of Jeanice McMillan, the novice operator of the striking train, who was among those killed in the wreck. The steel rails show evidence that McMillan activated the emergency brakes 300 to 400 feet before the pileup, which occurred on a curved section of track between the Takoma and Fort Totten stations, Hersman said.

Last night, investigators planned to run a train similar to the one involved in the crash to test the circuit. In coming days, another simulation will be conducted to determine whether the curve, or anything else, might have obstructed McMillan's view of the idling train.

The speed limit where the crash occurred is 59 mph, the top speed on the Metro system. If the track circuit failed to detect the idling train, computers onboard McMillan's train would have set her train's speed at 59 mph, making it difficult for her to hit the emergency brakes in time to avoid a crash. The impact pushed the idling six-car train forward seven feet, Hersman said. An empty six-car train weighs about 237 tons.

McMillan, 42, had been running trains without supervision for a few months.

Metro's automated trains are controlled by several electronic systems. The train protection system is made up of circuits embedded along the track, anywhere from 150 feet to a half-mile apart. As trains cross the circuits, signals are transmitted down the line to following trains. The signals automatically set speeds, slowing or stopping a train so that it doesn't crash into the one in front.

The railroad is divided into blocks, and the computers are set to keep two blocks of distance between trains. As an added layer of control, another electronic system regulates train speeds and spacing and stops the trains as they enter stations. A third system controls overall train movements to maintain proper routing and keep trains on schedule; it is monitored by workers in Metro's downtown central control room.

If the train protection system is working as designed, when one train begins to enter the two-block buffer behind another, the computers automatically deploy the brakes on the second train and force it to stop.

When investigators used a "shunt," a device that simulates a train on the tracks, to test the six circuits in the stretch near the crash, five worked properly and one did not, Hersman said. Hersman said that maintenance was done on the one circuit this month and last year and that those records will be examined.

In another development, the FBI recovered several cellphones from the crash site and are working to determine whether one was McMillan's, Hersman said. She said a preservation order has been issued for McMillan's cellphone records

Hersman also reiterated that the NTSB is concerned about the type of cars involved in Monday's crash. Purchased from Rohr Industries in 1974-78, they are Metro's oldest and have a tendency to fold into themselves, like a telescope, during a crash.

Jackie L. Jeter, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents train operators, said the union is demanding that Metro make several immediate changes, including using Rohr cars only when they are sandwiched between newer-model cars. The striking train in Monday's crash was composed of Rohr cars; the leading car incurred the worst damage and was compressed by two-thirds.

The union also wants operators to be given more control over their trains. "These demands are based on my belief that this accident should have never happened," Jeter said.

Investigators said yesterday that anti-climbers -- devices that should have prevented the first car of the striking train from vaulting onto the car it hit -- engaged in the crash but that the moving car "failed to stay intact . . . and it climbed up."

The first lawsuit against Metro as a result of the crash was filed yesterday, and more are expected. The parents of Davonne Flanagan, 15, of the District sued in federal court, charging "negligent operation" and "negligent maintenance" on the part of Metro and the train's operator.

Davonne was in the first car of the moving train, toward the back, when it struck; his leg was fractured, said his attorney, Lawrence Lapidus. Lapidus said the family is seeking $950,000 for medical expenses, pain and suffering, and other restitution.

"Depending on what is found, there are grave possibilities for liability for the . . . agency," said Paul Rothstein, a professor of tort law at Georgetown University.

Metro has created an emergency fund for survivors and families of the victims to help with medical, funeral and other expenses, the agency said.

Meanwhile, a top official at Boston's transit system called Metro the night of the crash to discuss the signal system, according to Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority spokesman Joe Pesaturo. He declined to say what was discussed.

Boston uses an automated train protection system similar to Metro's.

Last month, the MBTA experienced what Pesaturo described as an "isolated" signal system failure when a faulty circuit board along the track in one section of Boston's Orange Line failed to detect trains. Engineers discovered the problem and immediately stopped using the automated system while they checked all circuit boards. Trains had to be dispatched by radio for 12 days, and MBTA personnel were posted at each station to give the go-ahead for trains to proceed. That caused delays.

Boston uses signal systems made by the same manufacturer as Metro's, Alstom Transport. No problems were found with the other circuit boards, and the faulty one was replaced by the manufacturer, Adco Circuit, a subcontractor of Alstom's, Pesaturo said.

Staff writers Chris L. Jenkins, Sholnn Freeman and Ovetta Wiggins and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company