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Metro Employed Limited Testing After 2005 Scare Under Potomac River

The June Red Line crash, above, and a March 2 incident where two trains came "dangerously close" on Capitol Hill had similarities to the 2005 incident in which two operators had to manually brake to avoid hitting the trains in front of them.
The June Red Line crash, above, and a March 2 incident where two trains came "dangerously close" on Capitol Hill had similarities to the 2005 incident in which two operators had to manually brake to avoid hitting the trains in front of them. (James Thresher/Post)

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By Joe Stephens and Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 6, 2009

In a tunnel below the Potomac River four years ago, Larry Mitchell was at the controls of a crowded rush-hour Metro train headed to Rosslyn when he saw a glimmer of red reflecting off the walls. The train's crash avoidance system indicated that the track ahead was clear, but Mitchell sensed danger in the distance. He decided to override the system and brake manually -- then watched helplessly as his train rolled to a stop just 35 feet short of a train ahead.

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As a shaken Mitchell radioed Metro supervisors, he was interrupted by the operator of the train behind him, who announced that he had just caught sight of Mitchell's train and hit his emergency brake. "You could hear the panic in his voice," Mitchell said. That train ground to a halt 20 feet short of Mitchell's.

The outlines of the 2005 near-miss -- the first of three known breakdowns of a crash avoidance system designed to be fail-safe -- were made public shortly after it occurred. But newly obtained records and interviews detail just how close the trains came to what documents said would have been "disastrous collisions."

They also illuminate similarities to the June 22 Red Line crash that killed nine people near Fort Totten as well as to a March 2 incident in which two trains came "dangerously close" on Capitol Hill. The Washington Post first reported the March incident last month.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating this summer's deadly crash, confirmed that the 2005 incident has become a focus of its probe and that its investigators recently examined records from both near-collisions. They also tested hardware taken from the 2005 incident site to compare with similar equipment recovered from the crash.

Records and interviews indicate that Metro engineers did not perform exhaustive on-site tests of all components related to the incident in 2005 because they thought they had found the problem and did not want to further inconvenience passengers. Records also show regional safety officials were not formally notified that Metro had put into effect its own recommendations on how to make the subway safer.

Metro officials said they responded appropriately to the 2005 incident, identified the problem with the crash avoidance system and fixed it. A Metro spokeswoman said the cause was an electrical short circuit in cables under the tracks. She described it as "very different" from the fluctuating track circuit suspected of causing the recent accident. Cables are one component of a track circuit, which is a key part of the safety system.

Metro officials say the system is safe. Until June, no passengers had died in a crash since 1982.

After the 2005 incident, Metro's safety office made six recommendations aimed at avoiding a recurrence. By the time of this summer's crash, records show, none had been formally implemented and approved by the Tri-State Oversight Committee, which monitors Metro safety.

"We asked Metro for information on how those six recommendations would be implemented," the committee said in a statement to The Post. "We have not received any evidence that Metro has yet put them into practice."

Metro officials initially told The Post that they had put the recommendations into effect and notified the committee of the corrections years ago. In response to additional questions, a spokeswoman issued a second statement saying "we were mistaken" in asserting that the committee had closed out the issue. Nonetheless, she stressed, the corrections had been made.

The Post obtained documents related to the incidents through open-records requests to the Tri-State Oversight Committee. Metro officials did not respond to similar requests.

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