Metro to test real-time software for crash-avoidance system

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 23, 2009

Metro has developed software that it hopes can be a backup for the system that is supposed to prevent train crashes, officials said Thursday.

The agency and the contractor that helped create the software plan to test it next week, officials said. After a fatal Red Line crash in June, federal investigators said Metro's crash-avoidance system was inadequate and called for the agency to implement a real-time backup.

"We're at a point now where we want to test this to see if it will give us information in real time about any anomalies that may be out there on the track circuit," said Gerald Francis, Metro's deputy general manager.

With the software, a malfunction will trigger a visual and audio alarm on controllers' screens at Metro's operations center; controllers will be required to acknowledge the alarms.

Francis said that engineers plan to test the software during Monday's morning rush hour. It had not been decided whether the test will cover the entire Metrorail system or a portion. He said it was too soon to know when a fully operable backup would be in place.

Since the accident June 22, which killed nine people and injured 80, Metro has been working with Annapolis-based ARINC, a transportation communications and engineering systems company, to develop a backup for the train protection, or track circuit, system.

That system, which is supposed to be fail-safe, relies on audio frequencies transmitted between the train, the steel rails and other electronic equipment to maintain a safe distance between trains.

Although investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board have not pinpointed the exact cause of the accident, a track circuit failure is at the center of the investigation, in which one train rammed into another between the Takoma and Fort Totten stations.

The safety board said that equipment in a train control room near the crash site emitted errant signals, sending a false signal to the circuit and erroneously telling it that the track was clear when it was occupied by an idling train. As a result, the system did not send signals to slow or stop the approaching train.

Metro uses a software program to check for circuit malfunctions. Since the Red Line crash, those software checks have been run twice a day to look for anomalies. If problems are found, crews are sent to inspect the circuit; if necessary, adjustments are made on the spot. Circuits might be disabled if fixes can't be made immediately.

But the software check occurs after rush hour; the new program would run in real time. Officials said they plan to run both systems next week to see whether they pick up the same malfunctions.

A spokeswoman for ARINC contacted Thursday was not able to provide additional information.

ARINC 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 control center in downtown Washington. Metro officials have repeatedly declined to say how much the company is charging the transit agency for the additional work on track circuits.

In a separate development, Metro officials told a board committee Thursday that the agency is ready to move forward by Jan. 1 to offer riders Google Transit, an online mapping tool, if key issues can be resolved. Among them: persuading Google to agree to exempt Metro from liability for downloading corrupt data and Google's request that data be provided in a format that would require more work from Metro employees.

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