Metro panel advances safety upgrades NTSB urged after Red Line crash

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 2, 2010; 7:53 PM

A Metro board panel approved a $10 million project Thursday to replace track circuits as well as a plan to increase the capital funds available for safety upgrades the National Transportation Safety Board recommended after the June 2009 Red Line crash.

Also, the panel approved designating $15.7 million in existing funds in Metro's annual capital budget for carrying out the NTSB recommendations, in addition to $10 million already set aside for that purpose in the spring by Metro Interim General Manager Richard Sarles.

The full board is expected to vote on both proposals at its Dec. 16 meeting.

Metro Chief Financial Officer Carol Kissal said the transit agency plans to devote about $1 billion over the next seven years to implementing NTSB recommendations, including $262 million on 14 projects and about $800 million for new rail cars.

The NTSB recommended in July that Metro replace more than half of its 3,000 track circuits because of the risk that they could malfunction and allow trains to go undetected by the automatic train-control system, as happened in the Red Line crash that killed nine people and injured dozens.

The NTSB warned that the circuit modules Metro uses could seriously malfunction and pose an "unacceptable risk to Metrorail users." Although Metro is monitoring the problem circuits much more aggressively to manage that risk, the board recommended that the troublesome equipment and old rail cars be permanently removed as soon as possible. The NTSB has no statutory power to enforce its recommendations, which it makes without regard to cost.

It will cost an estimated $60.5 million to replace all 1,730 General Railway Signal Co. track circuits, according to Metro.

The replacement of the circuits is also necessary to allow Metro trains to return to automatic operation. Operators have run trains manually since the June 2009 crash.

The board's Finance and Administration Committee gave preliminary approval to award a contract to the firm Ansaldo to engineer, make and install 372 track circuits throughout the Red Line. Ansaldo, formerly Union Switch and Signal, has installed hundreds of track circuits on the Red Line that have not shown the malfunction that the GRS circuits have.

Metro staff recommended granting a sole-source contract to Ansaldo as the quickest way to replace the Red Line track circuits and estimated that the work on this first phase of the track circuit replacement program would take a year.

Other NTSB-recommended changes that Metro will begin implementing this fiscal year include replacing the 1000-series rail cars, the oldest in Metro's fleet, installing event recorders on the 1000- and 4000-series cars, replacing power cables, and conducting a comprehensive analysis of the safety of the automatic train-control system.

Metro's 1000-series cars date to the system's beginnings in 1976 and have become a safety liability: The striking train in the Red Line crash was part of that series and was compressed to a third of its length. Sarles has called their replacement his "top safety priority."

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