Metro's Red Line to Remain Crowded With Trains Being Run at Slower Speeds

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Riders on Metro's Red Line can expect trains to remain crowded for the next few days as speeds remain restricted to 35 mph because of the ongoing investigation into last week's deadly crash north of the Fort Totten station. Nine people were killed, including the operator of the train that struck one ahead of it; 80 were injured.

Transit agency officials hope to return to normal speeds by the Fourth of July holiday, when large crowds traditionally ride Metro to watch the fireworks on the Mall. But much will depend on signal testing that federal investigators and Metro personnel are conducting at the crash site. Bridget Serchak, a spokeswoman for the National Transportation Safety Board, said she does not know when testing will be done, but she added, "We're totally aware of the Fourth of July."

The 35 mph restriction helps keep trains moving regularly along the line, because those heading through the investigation area must move even more slowly. Metro has been closing the Takoma station at 10 p.m. since Sunday and is scheduled to do so again tonight. The lower speeds and Metro's new policy requiring operators to stop all trains at the front of the platform, leaving riders scrambling to readjust, have resulted in longer wait times between trains -- eight minutes or more during rush hour -- and intense crowding on Metro's busiest line. Some riders have reported shouting matches and near fights.

At a news conference yesterday, General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. said Metro will continue to operate all its trains manually instead of by onboard computers until an independent review of track signaling and circuitry is completed. A team being put together by the American Public Transportation Association, an industry group, is expected to be on site in the next week or two, he said.

Until he is confident that Metro's automated train operation systems are functioning at "one hundred percent," trains could be operating in manual for "a month, a year or two years," he said.

NTSB investigators tested a train protection system last week that should have prevented the crash and found "anomalies" in one track circuit, a key component of the system. The results suggest that the striking train in last week's crash might not have received information that another was stopped ahead.

"That system collapsed, and the collision did happen," Catoe said.

After the crash, Catoe ordered an inspection of all of the system's 3,000 track circuits. Yesterday, he said Metro had inspected 65 percent of them, "and all passed inspection."

Trains operated manually can travel at the same speed limits, but in the past, manual operation has meant bumpy rides, abrupt braking and slower speeds. In 2000, after Metro had to replace 20,000 relays -- key components of the signal system -- the process took 20 months, and all trains were run manually.

Metro is also sandwiching its oldest rail cars, like the ones involved in last week's crash, between newer cars. Trains made up of different types of cars do not run as smoothly.

About 80 percent of that reshuffling has been completed, and the rest should be done in a few days, officials said. But electronic displays in the newest cars that show the next stop will not function properly when the older cars are in the middle. As a result, the signs will not show the next stop.

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