House Subcommittee on Metrorail Mostly Hears Pleas for Funds

By James Hohmann and Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Metro General Manager John B. Catoe yesterday told a House subcommittee conducting a hearing into last month's deadly Red Line accident that the transit system is preparing a cost estimate for a new fail-safe system and plans to meet with a potential vendor this morning.

His testimony came a day after the National Transportation Safety Board urged Metro to install a backup system for its train controls.

In the 3 1/2 -hour hearing, witnesses answered questions about Metro's safety record and urged Congress to approve $150 million to help maintain the aging system's infrastructure.

Deborah Hersman, an NTSB member, commended Metro officials for quickly pledging to pursue technological fixes that might reduce the likelihood of crashes. Catoe said that putting the NTSB recommendations into effect is his top priority.

But he also noted that investigators have not determined why a circuit on one section of track -- between Takoma and Fort Totten -- continues to malfunction, even though components have been replaced several times.

"I do not know yet what we need to do," Catoe said. "At times, it does not detect a train there."

That, he said, is why Metro is continuing to run one train at a time between Takoma and Fort Totten.

Catoe rattled off safety precautions Metro has taken since the crash: Operators are running trains manually. Older cars have been moved to the middle of trains. Metro officials are preparing for an independent review of the signaling system. Engineers are running daily computerized tests on track circuits.

The NTSB said Monday that those daily tests are insufficient. A letter to Metro said that the system needs a real-time monitoring backup so that operators and downtown controllers can detect all the trains on the track at all times. Federal investigators also say the train protection system they consider inadequate would be problematic regardless of whether trains are operating in automatic or manual control.

Hersman compared the real-time system that the NTSB called on Metro to develop to technology that warns air traffic controllers when an airplane's altitude is dangerously low or that alerts pipeline engineers when pressure in a part of a pipe changes rapidly.

Catoe declined to estimate how much a new system would cost or how long it would take to design and implement. A Metro spokeswoman said later that the agency would meet with one vendor today and would contact others.

In a separate interview, Bill Petit, an independent consultant on signaling and train control, estimated that such a backup system would cost millions of dollars and take "years and years" to design, test and integrate into Metro's existing systems. A backup system would most likely look at inputs from track circuits, which detect the presence of trains, and evaluate where trains are before allowing a following train to proceed. Petit said he disagreed with the safety board's recommendation, arguing that such a solution should be deferred until investigators pinpoint the cause of the crash.

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