Metro fires train operator after Feb. 12 derailment near Farragut North

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 13, 2010

Metro fired on Thursday the operator of the Red Line train that derailed near Farragut North last month, saying that she had failed "to follow standard operating procedures," according to a statement released by the transit agency.

The six-car train, with about 345 people aboard, derailed Feb. 12 after the train operator failed to stop at a red signal and pulled onto a side track, Metro officials said at the time. The operator then tried to return to the main track, which prompted safety devices on the track to cause an automatic derailment to prevent a possible collision with another train, the officials said.

Three people suffered minor injuries in the incident, and passengers were trapped underground for more than an hour.

After the incident, the operator, who had worked as a rail operator since April 1999, was taken off the job for drug and alcohol testing, which is standard procedure, and placed on paid administrative leave, the statement released Friday said.

Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said that personnel rules prohibited her from releasing the name or age of the train operator or from saying what other positions the employee had held at Metro. The operator had worked for Metro since 1976, the year the system opened. Farbstein said the train operator is the only Metro employee who has been dismissed in connection with the incident.

A Metro source, who spoke last month on the condition of anonymity because the incident is under investigation, said controllers in Metro's downtown control center had set the switch to route the train onto the pocket track, which is similar to a breakdown lane on a highway.

The incident is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, one of four open NTSB probes into accidents at Metro -- more than at any transit agency in the country. NTSB spokeswoman Terry Williams said the investigation into the Farragut North accident is expected to take nine months to a year, and the NTSB had no new information to release Friday.

The NTSB investigation is focused in part on why the train pulled onto the pocket track.

Officials said the train operator and personnel in the Metro operations control center were interviewed as part of the probe. Investigators also measured the position of the wheels and the train on the tracks and inspected the automatic derailer.

The Metro employee in the operations control center responsible for that section of the Red Line was placed on leave.

Metro has been bedeviled by a string of safety lapses in recent months, including the June 22 crash on the Red Line near Fort Totten Station that killed nine and injured 80.

In the latest accident, the front two wheels of a four-car train derailed Wednesday in the Brentwood rail yard as two train operators repositioned it. The two train operators and a track worker were given drug and alcohol tests and put on paid administrative leave, Farbstein said.

Derailments of Metro trains that are in service are relatively rare. There have been nine such derailments in the transit agency's 34-year history.

They have become more frequent in recent years, with seven occurring within the past 10 years, according to Metro data.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company