A Nov. 4 article on the Metro train crash that occurred the previous day incorrectly described the steepness of the track between the Woodley Park and Cleveland Park stations as "a 4-degree grade." It is a 3.7 percent grade, which means the track rises 3.7 feet for every 100 feet of travel. (Published 11/10/04)
An out-of-service Metro train lost its brakes in a tunnel between the Woodley Park and Cleveland Park stations yesterday, rolled backward down a steep grade at about 30 mph and slammed into another train, sending plumes of black smoke into the station and passengers running for their lives.
The runaway six-car train came to rest after one of its cars climbed up onto the roof of the other train, which had just picked up passengers at Woodley Park and was poised to enter the tunnel. The impact of the crash, at 12:49 p.m., sheared the aluminum shell off one rail car and sent 20 people to hospitals with minor injuries.
The crash shut down one of the two tracks on that section of the Red Line and forced the closing of the Woodley Park Station. Trains moving in both directions shared a single track between Cleveland Park and Dupont Circle yesterday afternoon and evening.
Richard A. White, Metro's chief executive, said last night that the Woodley Park Station was expected to reopen this morning, with trains running on a single track between the Van Ness and Dupont Circle stations. He added that workers might have to wait until after after service ends tonight to remove the damaged trains, and that he does not expect full service to be restored until at least tomorrow morning. Free shuttles will run between the Friendship Heights Station and Farragut Square, and off-peak fares will be offered throughout the day on the Red Line, he said.
Transit officials and witnesses said the toll could have been worse if not for the quick actions of Calvert Sawyers, who was operating the train that was stopped in the station. He saw the red taillights of the other train growing bigger in the dark and realized the train was coming toward him.
Sawyers, 58, a 26-year Metro employee, shouted: "Everybody off this train as fast as possible -- run if you have to!" according to Metro spokesman Ray Feldmann. Sawyers, complaining of shortness of breath, was among those taken to the hospital.
Investigators are focused on why two safety systems apparently failed. The operator of the runaway train told Metro officials that he tried to apply the brakes as his train reversed direction but that they did not respond.
Debbie Hersman of the National Transportation Safety Board said last night that the board would examine the train's "braking system, the propulsion system, the repair history, maintenance and track records." She estimated damage to the two cars at $1.5 million.
The Metro system also is designed with something called rollback protection, in which electronic signals built into the track are supposed to recognize that a train is moving backward and notify computers on the train to engage the brakes automatically. It is unclear why the rollback protection did not stop the runaway train from striking the train in the station.
Experts in train-control systems said the type of crash that occurred yesterday is a rarity among automated subways.
"Metro has a fully automated train-control system, and the fundamental thing it does is to make sure trains don't come together and trains don't reverse direction and come back at each other," said Tom Sullivan, president of California-based Transportation Systems Design. "It's so fundamental to the design, I cannot possibly imagine any failure of the signal system that would allow this to happen."
Sullivan said it was possible that the rollback protection kicked in and ordered the train to engage its brakes but that the brakes were either turned off or not functioning properly. In emergencies, the train operator can throw what's known as a parking brake to stop a train. Metro officials could not say whether the operator used that last-resort brake. That operator has 10 months of experience as a Metrorail operator.
Train 703, the train in the tunnel, was en route from the Brentwood rail yard to the Shady Grove rail yard, where it would have been turned around and sent into service, Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said. The train had not exhibited any mechanical problems, she said.
The point in the tunnel where the runaway train started rolling back was about 2,000 feet from the Woodley Park Station and on a 4-degree grade, which is the steepest in the Metro or any subway system. Transit officials said the train apparently picked up speed as it rolled downhill.
"Until we know the exact reasons of this collision, we shouldn't be jumping to any conclusions about whether this was an equipment failure or human failure," said Metro chief executive White, who added that he believes the Metro system is safe. "Absolutely the system is safe," he said. "I don't have any questions in my mind."
The 20 people taken to hospitals suffering from minor bumps and bruises included 13 teenagers from the Marriott Hospitality Public Charter High School in Northwest Washington.
Deana Clingerman, 25, and her boyfriend, Nick Harnice, 32, were in the first car of Train 105. They said Sawyers, the operator, emerged from his cab, stood in the doorway of the train and told everyone to get off. "And he's waving his hands. He said it a couple of times," Harnice said. "Most people got off. You can tell the guy was panicked."
Harnice said he lay down behind a bench on the platform. Clingerman ran away from the train. The crash occurred within about five seconds. "Thank God for him telling us to get off," Clingerman said.
Mickey O'Connor, a 36-year-old visitor from Boston, was coming down the escalator to the platform with his wife and brother when he saw the crash. "It wasn't going super, super fast, but you just knew it was going fast," O'Connor said of the runaway train. "And then the train exploded up onto that front car of that train."
Philip Whims, 18, a student at the University of Maryland at College Park, was dozing on Train 105 and was jolted awake by the crash. "I saw people running out of the cars," he said, adding that two dozen high school students in his car were ushered out quickly by chaperones. Riders were screaming and crying, he said. "People were very panicky, to the point where I thought it was a terrorist attack."
The disruptions on the Red Line caused headaches for commuters and added to a growing dissatisfaction with Metro service. Jeff Cohen, 37, stood in a long line outside the Dupont Circle Metro station shortly before 4 p.m. He was among about 100 riders in an ever-growing line to board 65 buses to go to the Van Ness-UDC Station, where the Red Line was operating. Metro had not yet started single-tracking trains on the route.
"I'm not terribly pleased," said Cohen, a daily rider and database administrator who was heading home to Gaithersburg and did not learn about the Red Line delays until he was boarding at Metro Center. "I wish they had told me before I had gotten on," Cohen said.
The scene outside Dupont Circle Station before 4 p.m. was a kind of ordered chaos. Passengers flowed off the escalators at 20th and Q streets NW. Buses idled at the corners, and riders asked Metro employees which they should board.
Metro worker Shawn Muhammad stood in the middle of it, part traffic officer and part answer man. Some passengers were civil, and some sighed and groaned when they saw how long the line was.
Some were hostile. "You guys are terrible," one frustrated rider in a suit and tie said as he stormed past Muhammad.
Muhammad tried his best, asking people in line if anyone spoke Spanish and could help a Spanish-speaking rider. He wrote out directions for a deaf woman who wanted help. He helped fold a mother's two-seat stroller to get it onto a bus. At that moment, he was one of the few public faces of Metro.
"They're patient," he said of the riders. "They understand these things happen."
Jay McCord of Springfield, a reproductive health administration assistant who works near the Van Ness-UDC Station, boarded a bus there at 4:50 p.m., heading to Dupont Circle. He usually takes the Red Line to Metro Center before transferring to the Blue Line to the Franconia-Springfield stop.
"I'm probably stuck in a delay or a closure twice a week," McCord said, adding that he has been late to work because of Metro delays four times in the past two weeks. "It's probably one of the nicest-looking systems I've ever been on but the least efficient one." It takes an hour and 20 minutes to get from work to home, but yesterday he expected a journey of 2 to 21/2 hours. "For 16 miles away, that's pretty bad," McCord said.
Staff writers Karlyn Barker, Michel duCille, Maureen Fan, Manny Fernandez, Nicole Fuller, Allan Lengel, Susan Levine, Del Quentin Wilber and Clarence Williams contributed to this report.