Extensive damage prompts NTSB to probe latest Metro crash

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The National Transportation Safety Board announced Monday that it will launch a formal investigation of Sunday's Metro crash, in which a six-car train smashed into a parked six-car train at a Northern Virginia rail yard, injuring three workers and causing at least $9 million in damage.

The safety board is already investigating this summer's deadly Red Line crash, which killed nine and injured 80 north of the Fort Totten subway station in Northeast Washington. The June 22 crash prompted the panel to schedule a wide-ranging public hearing for February on the adequacy of Metro's actions to address safety issues and the adequacy of state and federal oversight of transit systems.

After that crash, two more Metro workers were fatally injured on the tracks. The safety board declined to investigate those incidents, citing limited resources and noting that worker deaths are more typically investigated by state occupational safety and health agencies.

On Monday, NTSB spokeswoman Bridget Serchak noted the "significant damage" to Metro's rail cars in Sunday's accident at the West Falls Church rail yard.

The damage could total as much as $36 million because all 12 rail cars were damaged, as was the track the two trains were on. New cars cost about $3 million each. Three cars were damaged beyond repair, and officials are assessing the condition of the remaining ones. Because Metro cars operate as married pairs, it is likely that the mates of each of the three cars damaged beyond repair will also be inoperable, officials said.

Metro officials have not said how fast Train 902 was moving when it pulled into the rail yard and hit the parked train at 4:27 a.m., but the impact was enough to derail two cars, one on each train. Those cars were the older 1000-series cars that Metro is sandwiching between new ones as part of its response to the June crash.

The older cars have been criticized for a tendency to crumple inward, like a telescope, in a crash, but Metro officials said Monday that the cars in Sunday's incident did not telescope.

Train 902 was the last train of the night, Metro said. In addition to the train operator, two rail car cleaners in the parked train were injured. They suffered bumps, bruises and cuts. No passengers were aboard the trains.

In August at the same rail yard, two Metro mechanics were hurt when a two-car train struck the rail cars they were working on. The mechanics were treated and released, and at the time, a Metro spokeswoman described the incident as "a very minor thing."

Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said incidents in rail yards typically "involve minor bumping." Sunday's crash, she said, "went beyond that."

A safety board investigation typically looks at all factors, from possible mechanical and equipment failure to human error.

In the past, Metro train operators have reported power "surges" that can occur when trains are moving slowly in the rail yards. The surge causes trains to lurch forward. Trains are limited to 15 mph in the rail yard, and operators are supposed to move at speeds of about 3 mph as they approach a parked train. "We all know, as operators, that some trains surge and go faster," said an operator who did not want to be identified because Metro does not allow employees to speak to reporters without authorization.

The operator of Train 902 had been in the job for about a year and had worked for Metro since 2007. Metro officials declined to provide the hours he worked that week. The incident occurred at the end of his nearly 10 1/2 -hour shift Sunday. He is on paid administrative leave, Metro said.

Agency officials on Monday briefed members of the safety board; Metro's regional oversight monitor, the Tri-State Oversight Committee; and the Federal Transit Administration about the crash. Union representatives were not at the meeting, Farbstein said.

Jackie Jeter, president of Amalgamated Transit Local 689, which represents most of Metro's train and bus operators and frontline workers, said the union is conducting its own investigation.

Sunday's accident was the fourth involving Metrorail workers since the June crash. In addition to the August incident at the rail yard, a Metro worker was struck and killed by a piece of track equipment Aug. 9, and a worker was fatally injured by a train Sept. 10.

Jeter said Metro has failed to implement a comprehensive retraining program for employees. Instead, "it appears that the safety pledge WMATA distributed to employees this fall is in lieu of the training. In our view, this is insufficient," she said.

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