Safety improvements in Metro car design deemed 'most wanted' by NTSB

The National Transportation Safety Board wants to avoid cars collapsing as they did in June on Metro's Red Line.
The National Transportation Safety Board wants to avoid cars collapsing as they did in June on Metro's Red Line. (James M. Thresher/The Post)
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By Lena H. Sun
Friday, February 19, 2010

The National Transportation Safety Board voted Thursday to add subway car design to its list of "most wanted" safety improvements to prevent the kind of collapse that took place during the fatal crash on Metro's Red Line in June, which killed nine and injured 80.

The force of the crash, in which one Metro train slammed into the back of another, compressed the lead car to a third of its original length as it rode up and over the train in front of it. Federal investigators consider the cars, which are more than 30 years old, to be unsafe because of a tendency to collapse like a telescope, reducing the "survivability" space, or the area in a rail car in which passengers can escape harm.

The board called on the Federal Transit Administration to develop and establish standards for minimum crashworthiness and guidelines for removing equipment that cannot be modified.

The panel's most-wanted list underscores those NTSB recommendations considered "essential to improve transportation safety," Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman said.

Metro's oldest cars have long been a source of concern. After a 2004 crash at Woodley Park in which the same type of car crumpled, the safety board recommended that Metro accelerate retirement of the cars or strengthen their frames. Metro officials said they could not afford to mothball the cars ahead of their planned retirement in 2014, and that retrofitting would be costly and impractical. Metro promised to replace the cars over a number of years, a response the NTSB described at the time as "unacceptable."

The oldest rail cars, purchased by Metro between 1974 and 1978 from Rohr Industries, make up about one-quarter of Metro's fleet. Replacing the 300 oldest cars would cost nearly $1 billion. Metro has started the process to buy new rail cars for the extension to Dulles International Airport. Those new cars, known as the 7000 series, also will be the design used to replace the Rohr cars, which are referred to as the 1000 series.

Last year, a first installment of $150 million in federal dedicated funding for Metro was included in an appropriations bill President Obama signed in December. The District, Maryland and Virginia have pledged to provide $150 million in matching funds as required. Priority for those capital dollars will be safety improvements identified by the NTSB.

The vulnerability of the oldest cars became such a high-profile issue that one of the first moves Metro officials made after the June crash was to sandwich them between newer, sturdier ones. While repeatedly portraying the move as one that might improve safety, Metro conducted no engineering analysis before launching the initiative, according to interviews and documents.

The FTA currently lacks the authority to issue national transit safety regulations, including those that improve the crashworthiness of subway cars. But after the June 22 crash, the Obama administration proposed taking over safety regulation of the nation's subway and light-rail systems. Under the plan, the FTA would have broad authority to develop and set standards, and power to bring lawsuits and seek criminal sentences.

The proposal would replace the current patchwork of state-run safety-monitoring organizations.

In a statement Thursday, FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff said he shared the safety concerns about rail transit systems. "That is why we sent a legislative proposal to Congress in early December 2009 to reform these laws and give FTA the authority to mandate and oversee improvements in transit safety. We encourage Congress to pass this legislation without delay."

NTSB's Hersman noted that at the Red Line crash site in Northeast Washington, Amtrak trains run on a separate track alongside Metro. But Amtrak is governed by different safety regulations.

As a result, "on one side you have crashworthiness standards, and on the other side, there are no standards," Hersman said. "That doesn't make any sense."

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