Metro finds no danger of collision in brake incident

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 14, 2010

A Metro investigation of an incident last week in which the operator of a Red Line train made an emergency stop found that no danger of a collision existed and that the event had nothing in common with a crash last year in which nine people died, Metro's top safety officer said Thursday.

"At no time was a hazardous condition present," Metro's new chief safety officer, James Dougherty, said in reporting the findings of the investigation at a board of directors meeting.

Dougherty said the train operator "thought the train [ahead] was closer than what it was" and used the emergency brake rather than the red emergency button known as the "mushroom," as Metro officials had said last week. Dougherty said that the train, which was moving at about 50 mph, stopped 600 feet from the train ahead and that there was no near-miss or danger of a collision because all track circuits and safety systems were functioning properly. No one on the train reported injuries.

Dougherty said that Metro would institute several changes as a result of the incident, including more robust notification about such events to the Tri-State Oversight Committee, which oversees Metro safety, and requiring that train operators report to the rail operations control center anytime they use the emergency brake.

Dougherty said that he did not learn of last week's incident, which occurred at the Wheaton Station, until the morning of May 6, about 24 hours after it occurred.

An anonymous Metro employee called to alert him to it.

Metro's operations staff had reported the incident to the safety department about an hour after it happened at 8:51 a.m. May 5, but it did not open an investigation until the next day because "the incident was determined not to be an emergency," Dougherty said.

Metro interim General Manager Richard Sarles and Metro's board members also did not learn of the incident until the afternoon of May 6 and were given inaccurate information about when and where it occurred.

Metro's slow and initially inaccurate reporting of the incident drew internal criticism from Dougherty and Sarles as well as demands for immediate corrective action from the oversight committee and regional officials. The National Transportation Safety Board said its chairman had phoned Sarles to voice concern that the NTSB had not been notified, given that it has four open investigations into safety at Metro.

The oversight committee's new executive board, with the transportation secretaries of Maryland, Virginia and the District, last week gave Sarles a one-week deadline to submit an analysis of what caused the use of the emergency brake and the communications problems within the agency.

"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 three officials said in a letter to Sarles last Friday.

In responding Thursday, Dougherty said that "this incident has no similarity to the June 22 collision."

The oversight committee also said that Metro had erred in not notifying it of the incident within two hours, according to a rule that requires Metro to report any potentially hazardous conditions. Dougherty said that there was no hazard but that it was a "gray area," because the train operator had perceived a hazard.

He said that "the safety department will increase its notification of rail events" to the oversight committee. In a memo to the safety staff last week, Dougherty said it was "not acceptable" that the safety department, which he was appointed to lead last month, did not start its investigation until more than 24 hours after the incident.

Sarles, in a memo to Dougherty, had called the incident "serious in nature" and said the oversight committee should have been notified "immediately."

Dougherty called Metro's investigation "extensive" and said it had been sent to the committee.

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