Metro Plans to Work With Md. Firm on Train Control System Backup, Official Says

By Lena H. Sun and Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 23, 2009

Metro is planning to work with an Annapolis-based company to design a backup for the train control system that is supposed to prevent crashes, a spokeswoman said Wednesday.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board have not pinpointed the cause of last month's deadly Red Line crash, when one train rammed into another between the Takoma and Fort Totten stations. But the board said last week that the agency's train protection system is inadequate and urged Metro to add real-time, continuous backup.

Until it resolves the concern, the agency is conducting a more rigorous review of its track circuits, in addition to regular maintenance. Metro spokeswoman Candace Smith said Wednesday that the agency is turning up an average of "about two to four track circuits" daily where crews are "investigating some kind of issue."

The firm, ARINC, owned by the Carlyle Group, already has a $15 million contract with Metro to provide electronics for the agency's backup operations control center in suburban Maryland and upgrade equipment at the main downtown control center, Smith said.

ARINC, a transportation communications and engineering systems firm, has been consulting with Metro about the new backup system and has not yet charged fees, Smith said. The agency is looking at other options. Metro and ARINC have not worked out terms of an agreement, but the contract can be modified, she said.

A spokeswoman for ARINC did not return a telephone call. ARINC makes wireless communications networks for the Navy and Air Force and communication systems for the aviation industry.

Metro officials say a real-time backup must be invented. Some experts have estimated that a system could take years to design and cost millions of dollars; others say there are simpler, less expensive solutions.

Metro has taken the unusual step of turning off circuits that cannot be immediately fixed. The Washington Post reported Wednesday that in addition to the track circuit at the accident site, circuits between Grosvenor and Medical Center on the Red Line, at Foggy Bottom on the Orange/Blue Line and at Court House on the Orange Line were disabled.

In addition, a source with knowledge about Metro's repairs said Wednesday that 11 track circuits on the Orange Line, from Minnesota Avenue to Deanwood and up to New Carrollton, were recently found to have problems detecting the presence of trains. One was disabled Monday night and put back into service Tuesday, said the source, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.

All but four others have been readjusted during the overnight hours when trains were not running.

Smith said she was unable to provide specifics about the total number of track circuits found to be problematic. "We're averaging about two to four track circuits a day, all part of this extra level of scrutiny," she said.

When crews disable track circuits, they create "dark" stretches. That means trains have to proceed one at a time through the affected section at a maximum speed of 15 mph, which is creating delays. Metro officials say the rail system is safe.

None of the problems have resembled the magnitude of the track circuit problem at the crash site, officials said.

Regulars on the Blue, Orange and Yellow lines said during Wednesday's afternoon rush hour that their trains have been especially congested and that their ride has felt much slower in recent weeks.

"Some days get frustrating," said Andy Reese, 47, of Alexandria as his Blue Line train sat under the Potomac between Foggy Bottom and Rosslyn, where a track circuit is disabled. "Like everybody, I'm frustrated and complain a bit. But there's not much you can do about it."

He said the train has been stopping two to three times under the river recently because of the delays caused by the track circuit problem.

Staff writer James Hohmann and researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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