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Crash investigators to issue Metro safety report in July

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 2010; B04

Federal officials investigating the cause of the Red Line crash that killed nine and injured 80 last June will issue a report in late July, concluding a probe that is expected to produce a road map to safety failures at Metro and how to fix them.

The July 27 meeting scheduled by the National Transportation Safety Board follows a rare three-day hearing in February that focused on Metro's automatic crash-avoidance system, which failed to prevent one train from slamming into another north of the Fort Totten Station in Northeast Washington on June 22. The testimony highlighted other safety lapses and management failures within Metro, problems that prompted changes in the agency's leadership and calls from federal lawmakers and the Obama administration to overhaul oversight of transit systems across the country.

Although Metro's interim general manager, Richard Sarles, has outlined steps he is taking to improve the safety and reliability of the system, the federal report should bring an even greater focus on specific measures that could prevent another crash, several officials said.

"We're very anxious to know what the issues are and what we need to do," said Peter Benjamin, chairman of Metro's board of directors.

Metro has set aside $10 million in next year's capital program to pay for safety improvements it expects the NTSB to recommend. "If it's doable, we'll do it," Benjamin said.

Critical projects Sarles has highlighted include replacing Metro's oldest cars and buses, filling staff vacancies in the agency's safety department, and developing systems to track and report incidents and the agency's response to them.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), who has led calls for better oversight of the transit agency, said she hopes the July report will "help Metro turn the corner."

"This will be one more step forward in how we can improve the safety and reliability of Metro," she said Thursday.

The safety board also is investigating three other Metro crashes since last June. The most serious, in January, resulted in the deaths of two track workers who were hit by a Metro utility vehicle as they worked at night near the Red Line's Rockville Station. The driver apparently did not know that the men were working behind him on the tracks.

In a statement Thursday, the safety board said it was still looking into rules and training programs designed to protect track workers.

In the other accidents, an operator crashed into a train parked at the West Falls Church rail yard last November, injuring three workers and causing at least $9 million in damage. Metro fired the operator a month later.

The operator of a Red Line train carrying 345 riders that derailed near Farragut North in February also was fired. According to Metro officials, the operator failed to stop at a red signal and pulled onto a side track, then tried to return to the main track, which triggered safety devices that caused an automatic derailment to avoid a collision. Three people suffered minor injuries in the accident.

Those investigations are ongoing and will not be concluded by the July 27 meeting, said Bridget Ann Serchak, a spokeswoman for the safety board.

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