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Working to Make Metro Safer

By JOHN B. CATOE JR.
Washington
Sunday, July 5, 2009

The tragic accident that took place on Metro's Red Line on June 22 has had a profound effect on everyone in our region. This accident is weighing heavily in the hearts of everyone at Metro, and yet I know that it pales by comparison to the pain experienced by those who were killed or injured, and the grief of their families. I have reached out to families of those lost and to the families of several people who were seriously injured to offer assistance.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the first responders and the medical professionals who arrived at the scene and provided care. The pain and the heroism of that day will never be forgotten, nor should it be. The final investigative report from the National Transportation Safety Board will not be completed quickly. However, even at this early stage, I do know that Jeanice McMillan, the operator of the second train, was not at fault and that, in fact, her actions to brake the train may have prevented a worse tragedy.

Although we don't yet know all of the factors that contributed to the accident, there are precautions we can take in the meantime. We immediately began running trains in manual rather than automatic mode, so that we could isolate the automatic train control system and check every one of the 3,000 track circuits that provide location data to our trains. We have inspected a little more than 85 percent of the track circuits, so far, and none have shown any problems. Before we return to automatic mode for trains, though, we must have no doubts that it is safe. A team of experts on train communication and signaling will evaluate our operation and make recommendations before we even consider returning to the automatic mode. We will probably operate in manual mode for several months.

Our top priority is accident prevention, but the severity of accidents, if they do occur, is a close second. For that reason, we have placed the 1000-series rail cars at the centers of our trains, hoping that this will make them less vulnerable in the event of a collision. You may notice that the next-station-stop signs inside the 6000-series rail cars will not function when connected to a 1000-series car. However, all critical rail car operations and safety mechanisms will work.

We have already started the process to buy new rail cars for the Dulles extension. These rail cars, our 7000-series, will also be the design that replaces the 1000-series cars. We are ready to order the replacements. We just need the funding. Unfortunately, getting that money is no small matter. The cost of replacing the oldest 300 rail cars is about $3 million per car, and we need nearly $1 billion for this in the next capital budget program. The region's congressional delegation has been trying to get dedicated funding for the transit agency in the president's budget.

The National Transportation Safety Board recently stated that, after the accident, it was discovered that a circuit was operating off and on for about five days before the accident. There's also more to the story. The fluctuation of the circuit was very unusual, and the indicators that there was a problem were fleeting during that time and not readily apparent. Again, the fluctuation was only identified in a trend analysis conducted after the accident. That in itself is a problem that we will address, but I think it is important to point out that the facts we have now don't indicate that anyone was likely to have noticed this before the accident.

Communication after the accident has been the subject of discussion. The evening of the accident and through the next morning, we worked to keep our customers informed. We issued seven news releases that went out to more than 2,400 subscribers. These releases were also posted to the Metro Web site, which was viewed more than 1 million times, almost double the number of times it was viewed the previous Monday. Additionally, we used our Passenger Information Display System signs, and made announcements in stations to direct and inform customers. That was on top of the 13 e-alerts issued on the accident between 5 p.m. and midnight to as many as 53,000 subscribers. We were also active on Twitter, sending 72 messages, or Tweets, about the accident. Having said that, I do feel that we can provide better information about the scope of the problem, and we've already started to do that. For example, our e-alerts now have more detailed information.

Safety is at the foundation of everything we do, and a tragedy such as this burns that purpose into our hearts and minds. We grieve for those who were lost and we hope for a quick recovery for those who were injured. We have always taken our responsibility for safety seriously, and we will not rest until we know the cause of the crash and have put remedies in place.

The writer is general manager of Metro.

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