2 near-misses and June crash linked, Metro official testifies

Family members of some of the nine victims of the June 22 Red Line crash discuss their emotions during the first day of a National Transportation Safety Board hearing into the fatal Metro accident.
By Lena H. Sun, Ann Scott Tyson and Joe Stephens
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Metro received at least two signs before June's fatal crash that its automatic crash-avoidance system might be fundamentally flawed, according to testimony presented Tuesday at a federal safety hearing.

In 2005 and again in early 2009, Metro trains came perilously close to colliding, records show. On Tuesday, a Metro official testified that the same malfunction connects the near-misses with the June crash.

"All three incidents have something in common. All three were failures of the automatic train protection system," said Harry Heilmann, Metro's assistant chief engineer, who headed the investigation into the incidents. "They were all failures of the fail-safe system."

The testimony presented a dramatic conclusion to the first day of a three-day National Transportation Safety Board hearing into the accident and contradicted the agency's public statements on the incidents. Testimony is scheduled to continue Wednesday and Thursday.

The nine-hour session suggested that officials failed to accurately identify the flaw in the automatic-crash avoidance system, which is designed to prevent two trains from occupying the same section of track. In 2005, three trains stopped just short of a crash in a tunnel under the Potomac River, north of Rosslyn. In March 2009, a train overshot a platform on Capitol Hill and stopped dangerously close to another train.

In the 2005 incident, Metro workers replaced equipment that they believed was causing the problem. But Heilmann said under oath that neither Metro nor the equipment manufacturer was "absolutely convinced" that the source had been identified.

He added, "We couldn't come up with another idea."

Heilmann testified that the June crash might have been linked even more closely with the 2005 incident.

"The Rosslyn incident may have been -- there is no way to confirm this -- may have been" caused by a signal that gave a false reading, he said. The signal problem is suspected of causing the Red Line crash, where the system that is supposed to prevent crashes failed to detect the stopped train and did not send commands to slow or stop the approaching train.

After the Red Line crash, Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein told The Washington Post that both incidents were "very different" from the problem suspected of causing the accident. The 2005 incident had been identified and fixed, she has said. The March 2009 incident remains under investigation, officials said Tuesday.

The testimony mirrored the findings of a continuing investigation by The Post, which, during the past eight months, has highlighted numerous safety lapses and management failures within Metro. The series first linked the accident and the near-misses in articles published in August and September.

Tuesday was a long day for Metro officials, who were questioned repeatedly about their commitment to safety. The safety board has not taken an official position on the cause of the crash, but the hearing made clear that investigators are examining broad lapses in oversight by Metro and monitoring agencies.

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