Page 2 of 3   <       >

NTSB blames '09 Metro crash on track circuit failures, negligent safety attitude

Two Red Line Metrorail trains crashed June 22, 2009 between the Fort Totten and Takoma Park stations, killing nine, including one train operator.

Metro was aware of track circuit problems as far back as 1988, the NTSB said.

The federal agency called on Metro to develop a real-time system for monitoring track circuits for problems, and Metro said it intends to have one in place by December. Metro evaluates track circuits twice a day and dispatches maintenance personnel to inspect circuits that do not detect trains. The NTSB said Metro should replace the 1,482 circuits that were built by GRS. Metro tested those circuits after the crash and found that 208 had the same malfunction that caused the crash.

With undisguised irritation, Hersman criticized Metro for not implementing many previous NTSB recommendations aimed at improving safety. "It's almost like we are talking with someone who is tone-deaf. They are not hearing it, they are not getting it and they are not addressing the problems," she said. "Our frustration is that if they don't listen this time, I am not sure what can be done."

Metro's top-to-bottom failure to prioritize safety -- exhibited by turnover and vacancies in its safety office -- is "a manifestation of the sickness that was going on inside this organization," Hersman said. "They were monkeying around."

NTSB members said safety was not made a priority by Metro's senior management or board of directors, adding that as of January, Metro board Chairman Peter Benjamin had not placed safety oversight in the board's mission statement and that former chairman Jim Graham had not heard of Metro's safety oversight organization, the Tri-State Oversight Committee (TOC). For its part, they said the TOC lacks "teeth" and cannot force Metro to be accountable for safety problems.

"This accident is a classic organizational accident," said NTSB member Robert L. Sumwalt.

Improving oversight

The NTSB recommended that the Transportation Department continue to seek authority -- proposed in legislation pushed by the Obama administration -- to regulate and provide oversight of safety at public transit systems.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood welcomed the recommendation.

"I thank the NTSB for its recommendation that Congress authorize the Federal Transit Administration [FTA] to enforce national transit safety standards, which could prevent future accidents," he said in a statement. "We will continue to work closely with Congress to move transit safety legislation as quickly as possible."

LaHood sent the Obama administration's bill to Congress in December 2009. Last week, Sens. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) introduced the bipartisan bill, which would authorize the FTA to establish federal safety standards for transit systems.

"The Senate must act quickly to pass this bipartisan transit safety package that the Banking Committee has worked so hard to develop," Menendez said in a statement.

The legislation would grant the transportation secretary new enforcement authority over public transit safety, require transit agencies to establish safety plans, improve state safety oversight agencies and increase spending for public transit safety.

<       2        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company