More than a year after Metro crash, NTSB reveals safety recommendations

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 12, 2010

The National Transportation Safety Board on Wednesday formally issued its recommendations for fixing potential rail hazards and the safety culture at Metro, as the transit agency moved ahead with a series of actions stemming from a recent NTSB report on the June 2009 Red Line crash.

The NTSB approved 15 recommendations for Metro and one to the Metro board of directors at its July 27 meeting on the crash.

Metro interim General Manager Richard Sarles outlined the steps Metro was taking to address the NTSB recommendations at a meeting Monday of the NTSB members, Metro officials and the transit agency's board of directors.

One of the most serious problems identified by the NTSB is the presence of more than 1,400 track circuit modules that have the potential to malfunction, which the NTSB concluded was a probable cause of the Red Line crash. The NTSB also found 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."

Although Metro is monitoring the problem circuits more aggressively to manage that risk, the board recommended that the troublesome equipment and old rail cars be removed as soon as possible.

Nine people, including the train operator, were killed and dozens of others injured in the accident, in which one train crashed into another north of the Fort Totten Station. The NTSB found that faulty track circuits meant the stopped train was not detected by Metro's automatic train control system, which instructed the oncoming train to speed forward.

Sarles said Monday that Metro had replaced the potentially hazardous track circuit modules at 34 locations in the rail system. He said the replacement was ongoing at eight other locations, and planned at the remaining 61.

Track circuit module inspections would increase from once to twice a year in November, Sarles added. He said Metro has retained an independent firm to examine the automatic train control system for potential failures -- another NTSB recommendation.

Sarles also said Metro would look into the "service and safety impacts" of removing the oldest, 1000 series rail cars. Previously, Metro's plan has been to replace the 1000 series cars when the first of the 7000 series rail cars are delivered in 2013. The Metro board approved a contract this summer to replace the 1000 series cars.

Another key recommendation involved ensuring that all Metro trains are equipped with event recorders. Sarles said Metro was developing a plan to equip its 4000 and 1000 series cars with the recorders. Other cars have the equipment, he said.

Metro has dedicated more than $30 million in capital spending over the next three years to carry out safety improvements to address the NTSB recommendations.

The NTSB meeting last month also included criticism of Metro's lax safety culture by NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman, who said Metro failed to apply lessons from a near-crash outside the Rosslyn Station in 2005, which might have prevented the deadly 2009 accident.

In response, Sarles said Metro had initiated discussions with its labor union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, to create a program for reporting such incidents "without punitive consequences."

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