By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 10, 2010; B05
Federal safety officials reviewing the fatal June 2009 Red Line crash criticized Metro's board of directors Monday, while its chairman fired back at recent findings that Metro failed to provide proper oversight of its safety procedures.
Chairman Peter Benjamin said during a public meeting between Metro and members of the National Transportation Safety Board that the transit agency "lost its innocence" after the accident near Fort Totten Station, which killed nine people and injured dozens. It forced Metro to reevaluate itself and to "no longer rely on our history" and once strong safety record, he said.
But Benjamin also questioned the NTSB's findings that Metro suffered a "systemic breakdown of safety management" and a "lack of effective oversight," noting that Metro's board is often criticized for micromanaging.
"This report seems to go in the opposite direction, and it's not exactly clear what you want us to do on our part," he said.
However, Benjamin also said that Metro's board "intends to ensure that, to the best of our ability, each and every [NTSB] recommendation to Metro . . . is implemented."
As part of that commitment, Metro's board will re-create a safety committee and revise Metro's mission statement and board procedures to reflect the agency's "commitment to safety," Benjamin said.
One of the NTSB's 23 recommendations dealt directly with Metro's board, with NTSB board members saying Metro needed to foster an "atmosphere of trust." But NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman, who was especially critical of Metro board members last month, calling them "tone-deaf," took a more conciliatory tone Monday, saying the agency appeared to be "making a commitment to safety."
Several Metro board members said they were particularly struck by the three-dimensional animated re-creation of the accident, which depicted Train No. 112 reaching speeds of 53 mph before it rear-ended a stopped train. The operator applied the emergency brake about three seconds after coming into view of the train ahead, but that only slowed the train a few miles per hour before the crash.
"I had a heavy heart when I saw Train 112 rounding the bend. . . . It was gut-wrenching," Metro board member Elizabeth M. Hewlett said.
Federal investigators found that Metro's automatic train-control system failed to detect one train and instead directed another to advance toward it at full speed. The crash was the deadliest accident in Metrorail's history.
The NTSB's report also said that a quarter of Metro's rail cars, the oldest in the fleet, offer little protection in a crash, posing an "unacceptable risk to Metrorail users." The NTSB lacks any statutory power to enforce its recommendations, which it makes without regard for how much it would cost to implement them.
Metro has set aside $30 million over the next three years to carry out safety improvements. The agency's interim general manager, Richard Sarles, told the NTSB that he is reviewing the specific recommendations and Metro's efforts at compliance.
Metro gave approval last month for Kawasaki, the manufacturer of the next generation of rail cars, to begin building replacements for the older 1000 series rail cars, which are expected to arrive starting in 2013. The company's Lincoln, Neb.-based plant will build 428 rail cars at a cost of $886 million. Sarles also said his team is evaluating how service and safety would be affected if the older fleet of cars was removed earlier.
Metro board member Jim Graham, the D.C. Council member (D-Ward 1) who was chairman when the crash occurred, discussed the difficulty in replacing the rail cars as quickly as the NTSB wants and said the accident resulted from a failure in technology -- although "I think this board needs to be accountable, and I want to be accountable as a member of this board."
"You say to yourself, 'What could I have done differently?' " Graham said. "What could you have done about this circuitry test?"
"I conclude that I don't know what I could have done."
Hersman, the NTSB chairman, replied: "The right question to ask is not what you could have done, but what are you going to do?"