Metrorail Meets With Vendors About Train Control Backup

By Lena H. Sun and James Hohmann
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 17, 2009

Metro officials are meeting with dozens of vendors about designing more protection to back up the train control system that is supposed to prevent crashes, officials said yesterday as the investigation into last month's deadly train accident continued to disrupt Red Line service.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board have not pinpointed the cause of the June 22 crash that killed nine and injured 80 when one train rammed into another one between the Takoma and Fort Totten stations. Federal investigators have said Metro's train protection system is inadequate and on Monday urged the transit agency to add a real-time backup.

Metro rail chief Dave Kubicek said officials have met with more than two dozen firms to discuss possible options but declined to identify them. Metro officials have said that no backup systems are available commercially and that one would have to be created. Some experts have estimated that such a system could take years to design and cost millions of dollars.

But at least one engineer has received a patent for a fix aimed at addressing the type of track circuit failure that appears to be at the heart of the Red Line crash. The electrical engineer, Ron Tolmei, said his system uses existing electronics in subways like Metro's, which rely on track circuits to maintain a safe distance between trains.

The circuit system detects the presence of trains using audio frequencies transmitted between the train and the steel rails and automatically transmits signals to the next train down the line. If the following train gets too close, the system sends a "zero" speed signal that forces it to stop.

Tolmei's patent, which is not in use commercially, would check the rear-car receiver of one train to see what the speed code is right behind the train. Any speed code that is not zero would be an alert to a problem, he said. Tolmei said he wrote Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. a letter before the NTSB issued its recommendation but has not been contacted. Tolmei is the former manager of research and development at the San Francisco BART system and worked there when it installed a backup in the mid-1970s to address intermittent failure of track circuits.

"This is a simple solution that is not likely to cost very much and meets every one of the [NTSB] requirements," he said.

Given a copy of the patent yesterday, Catoe said officials will follow up with "anyone who has a recommendation on what we need to do." He said that any system Metro chooses must meet certain tests and noted that Metro has been "inundated" with e-mails from companies soliciting business.

The continuing probe by the NTSB means that Metro officials often have less than optimal notice about station closings. NTSB spokesman Ted Lopatkiewicz said investigators cannot plan ahead because "you don't know what's going to be completed and what kind of progress you're going to make."

On Wednesday, Metro and federal investigators met to discuss testing in the crash area, which requires closing Takoma Station. Metro officials said the final sign-off took place in the late afternoon. The transit agency issued a news release at 5:48 p.m. saying the station would be closed from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. yesterday, giving riders less than 24 hours' notice.

By 9:50 a.m. yesterday, more than 100 passengers had gathered at Takoma to catch the last train. But five minutes later, the station was closed because a man had fallen onto the tracks. He was not injured and left the station on his own, officials said.

Irritated passengers were directed to take shuttles. "I'm a little frustrated. I'm going to go home to get my bike," said Zach Baker, 26, of Takoma Park.

The Takoma station will be open today but will close from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. tomorrow to allow investigators to conduct more tests. Trains will run between Glenmont and Silver Spring and between Fort Totten and Shady Grove.

Staff writers Henry Allen, David Montgomery and Robert Thomson contributed to this report.

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