Investigators studying the crash of a runaway Metro train are focusing on the operator and whether he hit the brakes in time to stop his empty train from barreling backward into an occupied train Wednesday at the Woodley Park Station.
Metro said riders should be prepared for another day of delays on the Red Line. Although the Woodley Park Station reopened yesterday, the train wreck remained on the outbound track while the National Transportation Safety Board continued its investigation. The wreckage was expected to be towed away overnight.
Trains in both directions shared a single track around the crash site yesterday, creating delays and crowding up and down Metro's most heavily traveled line. The single tracking will continue today while damage to the track is repaired. Yesterday, traffic also backed up on the roads above.
Metro is operating eight-car trains on the Red Line to reduce the congestion that results from less frequent service, and it is charging off-peak fares.
Metro directors spent several hours yesterday in a closed-door meeting with Chief Executive Richard A. White, talking about his performance and management problems at the agency.
"It's probably the most serious and formidable challenge I've had," White said of Metro's recent service problems and public criticism of his stewardship.
Meanwhile, new details emerged about the accident.
Lamont Lewis, who has seven months of experience on the job, was manually controlling his six-car train Wednesday when it reversed direction in the tunnel between Woodley Park and Cleveland Park and slid backward at 30 mph into a train carrying 70 passengers.
The runaway train came to rest after the shell of its rear car climbed onto the roof of the other train, a phenomenon known as telescoping. Twenty people suffered minor injuries.
Lewis told investigators that he had tried three ways to brake the train, according to Debbie Hersman, a spokeswoman for the NTSB, the federal agency investigating the crash. He said he applied the regular brakes, and also released a control lever, which automatically brakes the train. He said he also engaged the emergency parking brake.
But Lewis told investigators that when he hit the emergency brake, he felt a big thud. He told them that he thought the train had just come to a halt, but that he stepped outside and saw that his train had crashed into another train. Investigators believe he may have hit the brakes too late, as the crash was already unfolding, Hersman said.
Metro trains are designed to be operated by computers, which automatically control their speed and stopping. However, trains are often run manually, especially when they are empty and moving from one rail yard to another, as was the case with the runaway train.
Lewis was moving it to the Shady Grove rail yard. Manual mode puts greater responsibility on the train operator.
Investigators also are examining track conditions, maintenance and mechanical records of the runaway train, as well as its propulsion and braking systems. "We don't know exactly what broke down," Hersman said.
The runaway train was manufactured by Rohr Industries about 30 years ago and is among the oldest in Metro's fleet. The Rohr cars were rehabilitated in the mid-1990s, but to save money, Metro officials opted to overhaul just two major components, the propulsion control and motors.
As a result, the brakes and heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems on the Rohr cars frequently malfunction and cause the cars to be pulled from service for repairs. Still, Metro officials said there were no apparent mechanical problems on the runaway train before the crash.
The Metro system also is designed with something called rollback protection, in which electronic signals built into the track recognize that a train is moving backward and notify computers on the train to engage the brakes. It is unclear why the rollback protection did not stop the runaway train.
Hersman said investigators will test Metro's rollback protection and set up a simulation with another train of Rohr rail cars to see if they can duplicate the behavior of the runaway train.
Safety board investigators completed their work at Woodley Park last night and allowed Metro crews to start hauling away the damaged trains. Removal of the cars and repairs to the track were expected to extend at least through the morning rush hour.
Yesterday, transit officials hung a blue tarp down the middle of the platform to shield the wreck from view, but the curious sliced peepholes in it. And the crash site was plainly visible from the mezzanine.
"It looks like a disaster movie," said Christina Asquith, 31, who let out a gasp as she entered the station and saw the mangled mess of sheared aluminum and crushed metal frames.
Brian Hartstein, 24, who rides to Judiciary Square to attend classes at Georgetown University Law Center, said he regarded the accident "as a chance thing. . . . It happens."
But Dave Fuchs, 46, a daily Metro commuter since 1987, said he has watched the system's service and physical condition markedly deteriorate. Now, "looking at the heap," Fuchs was starting to question Metro's safety.
Others voiced concerns about Metro and its management.
"I am really, really worried and upset about the state of Metro," said Drake Wauters, 44. "My wife has to take Metro sometimes, and I really don't want her to come home without her head or something because of a runaway train accident. If trains are running around like that, people are going to get horribly injured."
"It was bad enough before when you have to worry about a potential terrorist attack," he said. "I don't want to have to worry about runaway trains. . . . It's time to really revamp things from the top down. We can't continue to go like this because it's going to get a lot worse. Somebody's got to come in there and right the boat."
Rail ridership was down by about 15,000 compared with a typical Thursday, Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said that "mounting problems at Metro" were complicating efforts on Capitol Hill to secure billions in federal money to fix Metro. Norton said she will urge hearings when Congress reconvenes.
White, Metro's chief executive, came to the agency from Bay Area Rapid Transit in San Francisco in 1996. His contract was extended in 2002 and is set to expire in 2009, which would make him the longest-serving chief executive in Metro's history.
As he testified before Congress and had frequent contact with federal officials in his first few years at Metro, White's visibility and reputation in his field grew. Last month, he was elected chairman of the American Public Transportation Association, the transit industry's premier organization.
He said yesterday that Metro's recent problems have created "the challenge of a 30-year professional career. . . . I have to dig down deeper to become a more effective general manager of this organization."
After yesterday's meeting, Metro board Chairman Robert J. Smith said White is devising some plans to improve accountability.
"We're looking to make it very clear what the lines of operation and accountability are within the authority," Smith said. "One of the things we're hearing quite loudly from the public and the media is we need to develop more credible accountability."
Smith said the Metro board backs White.
"Overall, the board is supportive," Smith said.
Staff writers Karlyn Barker and Steven Ginsberg contributed to this report.