Metro faces criticism over notification of Wheaton emergency incident

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 8, 2010

Metro's slow and initially inaccurate reporting of an incident in which a Red Line train operator executed an emergency stop behind another train at Wheaton Station this week drew demands for immediate corrective action from regional officials on Friday.

District Director of Transportation Gabe Klein, Maryland Secretary of Transportation Beverley K. Swaim-Staley and Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean T. Connaughton jointly issued a strongly worded letter to Metro Interim General Manager Richard Sarles that said they were "extremely concerned" to learn of the incident "over 24 hours after it had occurred."

The three officials, who met for the first time Thursday as the executive board of the Tri-State Oversight Committee (TOC), which supervises Metro safety, instructed Sarles to submit to the committee within a week an analysis of what caused the hazard and to document steps taken to resolve it since the June crash.

"Given the potential for such an occurrence to contribute to a catastrophic collision, similar to the June 22nd, 2009 [crash on the Red Line], this clearly represented an unacceptable hazardous condition," the letter said.

The officials also asked for an analysis of what led to the communications breakdown at Metro "and a concrete plan for eliminating them," the letter said.

"We are prepared to comply and to respond to any requests from the TOC," said Metro spokesman Steve Taubenkibel.

The incident occurred about 9 a.m. Wednesday when the operator of a six-car train hit the emergency brake as the train approached another six-car train that was departing Wheaton Station. The train came to a stop, and no one was injured in the incident. Metro has slowed the movement of trains through the location to a maximum of 15 mph, said Taubenkibel. The train operator was interviewed but not suspended, according to Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein.

The transit agency did not notify the TOC for more than 27 hours, according to TOC and Metro officials.

TOC Chairman Matthew Bassett said in an e-mail that "based on Metro's hazard management procedures, they should have contacted us within two hours" of the incident.

Metro's safety department learned of the incident from operations personnel Wednesday morning, but did not begin its investigation until Thursday morning, according to a critical internal memo from Metro's new chief safety officer, James Dougherty.

"This is not acceptable," Dougherty said in the memo issued Thursday to Metro's safety staff.

Metro officials said they did not know why the train operator hit the emergency brake. Bassett said one possibility is that there was a "false proceed," meaning the train was given a green light when it should have been given a red.

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