Safety system derails D.C. Metro train on wrong track

A Red Line Metro train's derailment caused minor injuries near the Farragut North Station. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating Friday's incident.
By Ann Scott Tyson, Lena H. Sun and Carol Morello
Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Red Line train leaving the Farragut North Station on Friday morning ended up on the wrong track and was automatically derailed by safety devices to prevent a possible collision with another train, according to Metro sources familiar with events.

The National Transportation Safety Board sent an investigator to the scene to take charge of the probe, which will be the agency's fourth ongoing investigation into Metro accidents.

The six-car train was headed north toward Dupont Circle when it derailed about 10:15 a.m., trapping about 345 people underground for more than an hour before they were returned to Farragut North and evacuated. Three passengers suffered minor injuries. The incident and emergency response paralyzed the subway system and downtown street traffic on federal workers' first morning back after a snowbound week.

Several riders noted the irony of leaving cabin fever behind, only to be confined on a train.

"The first time you come out from being snowed in for days, and then you get derailed," said Erica Napoleon, 33. ". . . I just kept hearing over and over, 'I should have stayed home today.' "

Metro sources said the derailment Friday morning might have averted a disaster by making it impossible for the northbound train to cross over to the southbound track.

After leaving Farragut North, the train left the main track and went onto a short stretch of track, known as a pocket track, which is similar to a breakdown lane on a highway. Trains are often routed to a pocket track when something is occurring ahead of them and they should not proceed.

Although it is not clear why, controllers in Metro's downtown control center had set the switch to route the train onto the pocket track, according to a Metro source, who did not want to be identified because the incident is under investigation.

That source and another Metro source said the train operator had failed to stop at a red signal on the main track. According to procedure, the operator should have stopped and contacted the control center.

"Part of the investigation will be to determine how the train came to be on the pocket track," said Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein.

Once the train was on the pocket track, it stopped. It then began moving slowly toward a main track, and a pair of safety devices, known as derailers, "popped the wheels off the track" to prevent the train from going further, a Metro official said.

"It intentionally derailed the train for safety purposes to stop it from running a red light and prevented a collision," the official said.

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