Metro train nearly hits independent safety inspectors

By Joe Stephens and Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 7, 2010

A team of independent safety inspectors was nearly hit last month by a Metro train that appeared to be traveling at full speed and making no attempt to slow, as required by agency rules.

The inspectors "experienced a near-miss situation" and "were forced to quickly scramble out of the way to avoid being struck," according to a report released late Wednesday by the Tri-State Oversight Committee, which monitors safety at Metro. No one was injured.

The Dec. 10 incident came just days after Metro lifted a six-month ban on monitors accessing live subway tracks.

The near-miss near Alexandria's Braddock Road Station was one of numerous safety violations identified in the report. In other instances, inspectors said that train operators failed to respond to hand signals from track personnel and that Metro's control center failed to give operators adequate warning about where workers were stationed on the tracks. The report also said inspectors detected antagonism between track workers and train operators.

The review concluded that Metro's safety training was inadequate and that the transit agency needed to take "immediate, short-term corrective action" to ensure worker safety.

Metro officials acknowledged in a statement released Wednesday night that the train that nearly hit the inspectors was traveling too fast.

"The policy is that the train operators are to slow the trains as they approach a work zone," Michael Taborn, Metro's chief safety officer, said in the statement. "That policy was violated and an investigation was launched immediately."

Metro officials said the agency has increased training and oversight of workers and plans to set up a safety task force and establish new worker safety rules.

Metro barred inspectors from live tracks in the spring, citing concerns about their safety. After the ban was revealed in a November article in The Washington Post, members of Congress demanded an explanation. Metro's board chairman rescinded the ban, and the agency announced an executive-level shake-up.

The near-miss came during the deadliest year in Metro's history and while the agency was under intense scrutiny because of news accounts revealing safety lapses at the nation's second-busiest subway system. It also took place the same day Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) testified at a Senate hearing that Metro was merely paying "lip service" to safety concerns and said she had lost confidence in Metro's management.

"This is outrageous," Mikulski said Wednesday when told of the near-miss. "It shows again that safety and accountability are not yet priorities at Metro. It is another example of why greater oversight of Metro is needed."

Metro has had six worker fatalities on the tracks in the past four years, accounting for almost 40 percent of the national total.

In the spring, Metro told inspectors from the Tri-State Oversight Committee that they could no longer walk along live tracks to assess compliance with safety rules. In the months following, a track vehicle on the Orange Line struck and killed Metro worker Michael Nash, and a train near Reagan National Airport struck and fatally injured Metro technician John T. Moore.

The inspectors were given access to live tracks Dec. 2 and returned for a second look Dec. 10. The team was assessing whether Metro employees were following rules designed to protect track workers, such as slowing and stopping as required when trains approached people on the tracks.

One team comprised two representatives from the oversight committee and an escort from Metro. They accompanied two Metro track inspectors. The report did not name the team members.

Near the Braddock Road Station, a Metro train unexpectedly bore down on the team, according to the report. The team members "experienced a near-miss situation when a train that appeared to be operating at full track speed passed the employees working along the [tracks] without appearing to slow down at all or acknowledge the employees' presence in any other way," the report said.

That was a "direct violation" of rules put in place after a string of accidents in 2005 and 2006, in which four subway workers were struck and killed by trains, the report said.

All five people on the tracks "were forced to quickly scramble out of the way to avoid being struck by the train in question due to the speed with which it appeared to approach."

Metro trains routinely travel at 59 mph through that section of track. Trains are supposed to slow to 35 mph two stations before a site where personnel are known to be working and to 10 mph after work crews are spotted.

Beyond that incident, inspectors said they saw multiple instances of trains going faster than rules allow when approaching workers on the tracks.

Other problems highlighted included a lack of clear written procedures for how to handle lookout duties for track workers and improper use of hand signals. Inspectors saw one track worker text-message Metro's control center with a cellphone instead of using a radio. Inspectors also saw track walkers with their backs turned to an oncoming train.

In addition to immediate corrective action, the report said Metro should evaluate all the rules and procedures governing workers on the tracks.

Metro has scheduled a safety work session next week that will include experts from other transit agencies.

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