NTSB hearing to focus on D.C. Metro automated controls, gaps in oversight

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
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 20, 2010

Next week's federal safety board hearing on the fatal Metro crash in June will focus on the subway's automated crash-avoidance system and on holes in safety oversight at the local, regional and national levels.

The National Transportation Safety Board rarely holds hearings on accidents it investigates, but it will take sworn testimony and question witnesses for three days beginning Tuesday because of serious safety concerns about Metro and widespread interest in the accident.

"It rings both of those bells," said Robert Sumwalt, the safety panel member heading the inquiry. Riders take 750,000 subway trips on an average weekday, and "there are significant safety issues evidenced by the number of safety recommendations we've already issued," he said.

The June 22 crash, which killed nine and injured 80, was the worst in Metro's 34-year history. The NTSB is investigating three other Metrorail accidents, an unprecedented number for a single transit agency, officials said.

"It's disturbing," Sumwalt told reporters in a briefing Friday. "It's our intention to learn more about the operations of [Metro] through this public hearing."

It will be several months before the NTSB issues a formal finding on the probable cause of the crash. Sumwalt said the board hopes to do that by the first anniversary of the crash.

But next week's testimony, and information already released by investigators, should make clear the general outlines of what caused the crash, officials said.

In addition, the NTSB wants to address broader issues: how Metro identifies and corrects safety problems, and the adequacy of state and federal oversight.

Officials from Metro, its regional safety monitor and the Federal Transit Administration are among the nearly two dozen witnesses scheduled to testify. Witnesses from Metro are scheduled to testify the first day. They include departing General Manager John B. Catoe Jr.; the rail chief and acting deputy, Dave Kubicek; the acting chief safety officer, Michael Taborn; and Metro's board chairman, Peter Benjamin.

Federal investigators have focused on the failure of the automatic train-control system in the June crash, in which one train slammed into the back of another that was stopped north of the Fort Totten Metro station. The board has issued several safety recommendations urging Metro to install a real-time backup to the automated system and has advised other transit agencies to make sure that they have adequate safety redundancy.

Metro officials described the failure of the control system as a "freak occurrence." But an investigation by The Washington Post found that the system failed more than once before the crash. Ed Dobranetski, chief NTSB investigator on the crash, said the board will examine those incidents.

The board will also scrutinize Metro's testing procedures and maintenance of its train control components, he said. Five days before the accident, a Metro crew replaced a key piece of circuitry, but the equipment malfunctioned and no one at Metro detected the problem, investigators and transit officials have said.

Most of the hearing will be devoted to state and federal oversight of transit agencies.

Unlike with other forms of transportation, the federal government cedes primary oversight of subways to a patchwork of state-level safety oversight boards. For Metro, the monitoring body is the Tri-State Oversight Committee, an organization with no employees, no office and no phone number. The committee has no direct regulatory authority over Metro. Committee members work for local and state transportation departments, and much of the panel's work is contracted out.

In recent months, a Washington Post investigation has documented repeated instances in which the committee was unsuccessful in obtaining information from Metro about near-collisions and other safety breakdowns.

Safety experts and federal officials say the incidents reflect a fundamental flaw with subway systems: a lack of effective and enforceable oversight, which leaves transit systems in charge of policing their own safety.

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