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

By Lena H. Sun, Ann Scott Tyson and Joe Stephens
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 24, 2010; B01

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.

Witnesses scheduled to testify Wednesday and Thursday include officials from the Tri-State Oversight Committee, which monitors Metro safety, and transportation agencies from around the country, including California and Massachusetts.

The safety board also released thousands of pages of interviews and internal Metro documents. Many of the records detailed problems in safety and oversight explored in the articles.

NTSB hearing Chairman Robert Sumwalt, who posed some of the toughest questions, asked why Metro's governing board lists oversight of funding and expansion among its core duties in the agency's official procedures but does not include safety. "Why was safety . . . not in there?" Sumwalt asked new Metro board Chair Peter Benjamin.

Benjamin agreed that the description should have included safety but said that board members rely on managers to bring exceptional concerns to their attention because of the large number of safety issues the agency faces every day.

Metro Acting Deputy General Manager David Kubicek suggested that a handful of employees were responsible for safety shortcomings. "We have to get rid of these isolated cases," he said. "There is a group down there we have to reach down and get hold of."

The NTSB panel also questioned Metro officials about their rocky relationship with the Tri-State Oversight Committee and their willingness to share information with the independent safety monitoring group. The Post has reported that in the past, Metro has failed to supply records to the committee and that last year Metro banned safety monitors from the committee from walking along live subway tracks.

Panel members grilled Metro officials on the scores of identified safety deficiencies that had languished, uncorrected, for years. Officials accelerated efforts to fix the problems in December.

Sumwalt questioned whether Metro's board had ignored safety while focusing instead on budget shortfalls and other issues. Benjamin said board members might need to broaden their focus.

Relatives of the victims of the June crash watched the exchange from the audience.

"Nothing's going to change," said Kenneth Hawkins, the younger brother of victim Dennis Hawkins, 64, an administrative aide at Whittier Elementary School in Northwest Washington. He called the hearings a "bureaucratic process."

"Who will be there to make [Metro] do what they have to do" to improve, he asked. He said several improvements recommended after a 2004 accident at Woodley Park have not been implemented. The NTSB "has no teeth," he said.

Released documents, including transcripts of emergency calls to 911, paint a graphic portrait of the moments after the crash. The first two calls came from passengers.

"How many people are injured?" a dispatcher asked one caller.

"It's a whole train. A whole train," the caller said.

"The whole train is injured?"

"Yes. . . . There's blood everywhere," the caller said. "The train fell. . . . I can't walk. It hurts so bad."

Another caller gasped: "Oh my God. The train is, like, sticking up in the air."

A third caller worried that another train could be bearing down on the accident site: "Please, stop all trains on the Red Line," he pleaded.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company