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

By Ann Scott Tyson, Lena H. Sun and Carol Morello
Saturday, February 13, 2010; B01

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.

The train operator and the downtown controller responsible for that section of the Red Line were placed on administrative leave and will undergo drug and alcohol testing, which is standard Metro procedure, the official said.

'That didn't sound good'

Over the past eight months, Metro has been bedeviled by safety lapses and oversight failures. Five Metro workers have been killed on the tracks in the past seven months. The safety problems, including a Red Line crash June 22 that killed nine people, have triggered upheaval in Metro's leadership, including the resignation of the system's top executive, and a White House effort to overhaul transit oversight nationwide.

Several riders said that last year's Red Line crash weighed on their minds as they awaited rescue but that everyone on board reacted calmly.

"It wasn't like it was a big emergency," said Teri Mack, 42, of Upper Marlboro, who was on the third car with her 12-year-old son, Tyler. "It was just like, Whoops! The train derailed. And we're looking at each other like, What? Do you mean derailed derailed?"

To evacuate the passengers, Metro officials put them in the rear four cars and returned them to Farragut North. As they emerged from the station, riders recalled the moment when they felt a small jolt and the train came to a halt.

"I felt a quick drop, a bump or two, and the train tilted to the left," said Nick Berning, 29, who was in the front car, standing just behind the operator's cab.

Ubah Aden, 36, of Alexandria compared the experience to airplane turbulence. Passengers who were standing kept their balance, she said.

"People murmured, 'That didn't sound good,' " recalled Linda Strating of Alexandria, who was in the third car.

The operator spoke over the intercom and advised riders that the train had derailed but that help was on the way.

Several riders said they were most worried about the train being struck by another train. David Kaufman, who was standing near the back of the last car, moved from the rear of the car toward the front.

Many said people tried to make the best of the situation, whiling away the time by telling jokes. "Anyone who starts panicking will be thrown off the car," was one line that brought rueful chuckles, said Stephanie Ebron, 41, who was in the fourth car.

Some tried to use their cellphones to call work or home, but they could not get a connection. A few prayed.

Many looked bewildered as they returned to street level. Some said that Metro had promised shuttle buses but that none was in sight.

A long line of problems

The incident follows an unprecedented string of accidents at Metro, a transit system that, until last summer, had a national reputation for safety.

In June, one Red Line train crashed into another near Fort Totten, killing nine people and injuring 80. At the time, Metro officials described the failure of Metro's automatic crash-avoidance system as "a freak occurrence." But in the following weeks and months, The Washington Post reported that similar failures of the train- control technology had preceded the June crash and that Metro had suffered from a systemic breakdown in safety oversight.

Internal records showed that the supposedly fail-safe crash-avoidance system had failed three months before June's crash, allowing two trains to come "dangerously close." Records also showed that the system failed in 2005, when three trains narrowly averted "disastrous collisions."

In November, records showed that Metro had quietly barred safety monitors from walking along its live tracks to assess Metro's compliance with its own safety rules. During the ban, two workers were hit on the tracks and fatally injured. In late January, two more Metro workers were fatally injured when struck by a utility vehicle on the tracks.

An analysis by The Post of safety data showed that more than 100 Metro safety flaws -- identified after audits, accidents and other incidents -- had gone uncorrected.

Metro safety became a focus of at least three hearings on Capitol Hill. The Government Accountability Office and the Federal Transit Administration began looking into Metro operations.

In December, the Obama administration called for taking federal control of safety regulation of subways and light-rail systems nationwide. In January, Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. announced his resignation. His last day will be April 2.

The emergency response Friday created traffic jams on the streets around the Farragut North station. Firetrucks, other emergency vehicles and police tape blocked off traffic near the station entrance. Aggravating the situation was the piled-up snow limiting the number of lanes open for vehicles.

Farragut North reopened shortly after noon, but there were residual delays in both directions. Trains were being restricted to a maximum speed of 25 mph between Dupont Circle and Farragut North while authorities investigated the derailment.

Staff writers Michael Birnbaum, Paul Duggan, Lyndsey Layton, Jonathan Mummolo, Mary Pat Flaherty, Michael Ruane and Joe Stephens contributed to this report.

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