Sandwiching Older Metro Cars Was PR Move

Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 27, 2009

One of the first moves Metro officials made after a subway crash killed nine people this summer was to sandwich older rail cars, similar to one crushed in the accident, between newer, sturdier cars. While repeatedly portraying the move as one that might improve safety, interviews and newly obtained documents show Metro conducted no engineering analysis before launching the initiative.

Metro took the action "as a means to address public perception," Metro safety chief Alexa Dupigny-Samuels told a safety panel in July in a previously undisclosed letter.

Shifting the cars "was not undertaken because these railcars are 'unsafe' or [because they] pose a hazard," she wrote in the letter to the Tri-State Oversight Committee, a regional safety panel. Officials repositioned the cars, she said, "to provide an added level of reassurance." Dupigny-Samuels did not cite any scientific support for the move.

Committee members concluded that Dupigny-Samuels viewed the measure as "purely a public relations effort," records show.

Meanwhile, Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. was striking a different tone in public appearances.

At a June 30 news conference, Catoe said, "To ensure as much as we can the crashworthiness of our cars and of our trains, we're moving these cars to the belly of the train configuration." Five days later in an op-ed column in The Washington Post, Catoe wrote, "We have placed the 1000-series rail cars at the centers of our trains, hoping that this will make them less vulnerable."

And a week after that, in testimony to a congressional subcommittee, Catoe said that Metro was working "to enhance safety" and that "the cars are specifically placed based upon . . . crashworthiness." In the news conference and in his testimony, Catoe stressed that he considered the cars safe to operate.

Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein confirmed last week that the agency conducted no analysis showing that the measure improved safety. She said she was unaware of any other transit agency that had taken similar steps and was unaware of any outside entity that had sanctioned the move.

"We have no engineering analysis that says it will make it safer, that is correct," Farbstein told The Post on Wednesday. "We do not have any engineering analysis that says one way or the other. We certainly don't believe it's going to make any train set less safe. . . . So as a precautionary measure, we thought it would be best to belly them."

She added that Metro considers the 1000 series cars safe even when on the ends of trains. The cars remain in the center of the trains.

On Friday, Farbstein supplied The Post with a Web link to an 11-year-old study, which she said showed that the first car in a striking train suffers the greatest amount of crush. The study, however, said that its findings applied to a "generic, high speed" train and that it relied on the "probably unrealistic" assumption that the cars would not buckle or override each other, as 1000 series cars have done in past accidents. The study did not examine what happens when dissimilar cars are mixed in the same train.

Metro board member Jeff McKay said establishing scientific support was never a concern. When the board met in an emergency session the day after the crash, some Metro executives were reluctant to belly the older cars because of manpower costs and logistical concerns, he said. But the board insisted.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company