Safety Board Says Metro Mentioned Earlier Malfunction of Crash-Avoidance System

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 13, 2009

Federal investigators were notified the day after Metro's deadly June accident that in March there had been a failure of the same crash-avoidance system suspected of being at the heart of the Red Line accident, federal officials said this week, revising an earlier statement that Metro had not informed them of the first incident.

On Friday, the National Transportation Safety Board had said that it first learned of the March incident last week, when notified by the Tri-State Oversight Committee, which monitors Metro.

After a more detailed review, NTSB spokeswoman Bridget Serchak said in an e-mail, the board found that information about the March incident had been "provided verbally by an employee of [Metro] on June 23, 2009 to the NTSB accident investigation team during a progress meeting" about the Red Line crash. No details of the March incident were provided to the NTSB at that time, they said.

On June 22, a Red Line train plowed into one stopped on the tracks north of the Fort Totten station, killing nine and injuring 80.

The earlier incident took place about 4 p.m. March 2, when an Orange Line train headed toward Vienna overshot the station platform at Potomac Avenue, Metro officials have said. The train operator realized he wasn't slowing down as he entered the station and hit the emergency brake. The train stopped about 500 feet -- less than the length of an eight-car train -- from the one ahead of it, Metro officials have said. No one was injured, and the train was taken out of service.

The March incident was not made public by Metro and was discovered last week by The Washington Post in committee documents.

Although the same train-protection system is suspected in the June crash and the March incident, the suspected cause of the Fort Totten crash is a malfunction of the track circuit, equipment mainly on and near the track bed, while the March incident was caused by a single failed relay on a subway car that has been fixed, Metro officials said.

NTSB officials learned the specifics of the incident after the Tri-State Oversight Committee notified them last week that The Post had filed a public records request about the March incident.

The committee sent a letter April 29 to Metro's chief safety officer asking Metro to conduct an investigation and submit a report on the Potomac Avenue incident. The letter said the trains came "dangerously close" in the "potentially catastrophic" incident. Metro safety officer Alexa Dupigny-Samuels disputed that characterization in a statement Sunday, saying 500 feet is a "safe distance."

Last week, the NTSB asked Metro to provide additional details about the Potomac Avenue investigation, including all testing, results of work done, and actions taken by the agency, Serchak said.

There are no formal procedures for parties being investigated by the NTSB to provide information to the safety board.

"We do expect the parties, if they have information that is relevant to our investigation, that they bring it forward and share that with the NTSB," Serchak said.

Safety board investigators remained on the scene of the Red Line crash far longer than usual. "We've gotten some information. It hasn't all gotten here yet, but overall, [Metro] is trying to be responsive and cooperative," Serchak said.

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