By Lena H. Sun and James Hohmann
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Federal investigators issued urgent safety recommendations nationwide Tuesday about the train control system at the center of the fatal Metro crash in June.
The investigators, while not pinpointing a cause for the crash, say a possible design anomaly in an automated control system could have allowed it, raising serious concerns about the safety of Metro and all other transit systems with the same technology. Investigators also raised concerns about how routine maintenance could have affected the performance of the system.
Metro and other transit agencies should examine their train control systems, in cooperation with the manufacturer, to guard against further malfunctions, the agency said.
The National Transportation Safety Board sent advisory letters with the recommendations to Metro, the Federal Railroad Administration, the Federal Transit Administration and Alstom Signaling, the company that makes the train protection equipment.
"After only three months, this complex investigation is far from complete, so we are not ready to determine the probable cause of the accident," said Chairman Deborah A. P. Hersman. "However, our findings so far indicate a pressing need to issue these recommendations to immediately address safety glitches we have found that could lead to another tragic accident on [Metro] or another transit or rail system."
Investigators said errant signals emitted from equipment in a train control room near the site of the Fort Totten crash gave a false signal to the automated crash-avoidance system, erroneously telling it the track was clear when in fact it was occupied by an idling train. As a result, the track circuit system that is supposed to prevent crashes failed to detect the train and did not send signals to slow or stop the approaching train. Nine people were killed and 80 injured in the June 22 accident.
A spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, which oversees about 700 railroads, said it was not immediately clear how many or which rail systems use the same type of track circuits. Industry officials said relatively few railroads are affected.
Among transit agencies, Boston, Atlanta, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Baltimore are the major cities with similar track circuitry controls. Spokespeople for several transit agencies said they needed time to review the recommendations.
In the letters, safety board officials said the accident investigation "has raised concerns about the susceptibility of this audio frequency track circuit design to errant signals."
The Metro system relies 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 signals that force it to slow or stop.
The safety board also called on Metro to develop a program to periodically determine that the electronic components in the train control systems are performing properly.
The board urged Alstom to help Metro and other transit agencies examine the train control systems for vulnerability to the false signals. An Alstom spokeswoman did not return a telephone call.
The safety board did not say why the errant signals were occurring.
Federal safety officials said the testing and investigation "have raised concerns about how routine track circuit adjustments and/or changes in the operating characteristics of electronic components" in the train control systems "may affect system performance."
Five days before the accident, a Metro crew replaced a key piece of equipment, known as an impedance bond, in the track circuit at the accident site. The replacement of the bond required the track circuit signal strength to be adjusted to accommodate the new equipment, investigators said. It is possible that adjustments made could have inadvertently affected components elsewhere. The track circuit began malfunctioning, or "fluttering," after the equipment was replaced, Metro maintenance records show.
Much of Metro's track components are original equipment manufactured and installed when the Red Line was built in the 1970s. The agency is in the process of upgrading that equipment.
Metro officials said they were taking all measures to make the rail system as safe as possible.
"The NTSB has identified a symptom of the problem with the track circuit, but not a root cause or a solution," said Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. Catoe said Metro will "implement immediately" the board's recommendations to look for errant signals elsewhere and to make sure all electronic components are performing properly.
He said Metro is already working with equipment manufacturers to address concerns raised earlier by the safety board.
Since the crash, Metro has been conducting more rigorous testing of its track circuits.
In July, the safety board said the track circuit electrical system designed to prevent crashes is inadequate and urged the transit agency to add a real-time, continuous backup that would alert train operators to potential problems and stop trains when necessary.
The agency has been in talks with an Annapolis-based company that 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.
The firm, ARINC, is a transportation communications and engineering systems firm. The two sides have been in active talks about estimates for the work, according to Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein.
Metro spokeswoman Angela Gates said crews are still working on replacing the track circuit at the accident site at Fort Totten. She said they're "doing additional testing," but didn't know when the work might be completed.
Staff writer Lyndsey Layton contributed to this report.