The details were made public during a meeting of the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, which published its final report on its investigation into an after-hours crash Oct. 7 outside the Farragut West station.
Investigators say an inbound and empty six-car train crashed into a stationary six-car train about 600 feet outside the station. The crash caused minor injuries to both train operators.
In the days after the crash, a preliminary investigation ruled out system error and determined that both train operators had received “zero speed” commands and complied. The command means the operator should stop the train and remain stationary. However, the operator of the striking train then moved forward without receiving permission from the rail operations control center.
In the investigative report released Thursday, officials said the driver of the striking train made false statements to investigators and refused to turn over his cellphone, which was later determined to have been in use at the time of the crash.
Neither Metro nor the commission would name the operator. Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents most Metro workers, including train operators, declined to comment.
Metro board Chairman Paul C. Smedberg and board member Michael Goldman said the findings of the safety commission’s investigation will be discussed at the next board meeting.
They referred all other questions to Metro managers. Metro, in a statement, said, “The employee who was at the controls was terminated following this incident, under policies put in place under current Metro leadership, and that was the proper outcome.”
Asked why the employee had still been with the agency, given his history, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said the transit agency’s disciplinary policies are negotiated with its labor unions through collective bargaining and are based on a system where violations are assigned points according to severity.
Stessel said with some exceptions, points expire after a specified period.
The point system was created in 2017, and “it’s likely that Metro management were working within the constraints” of the disciplinary policies at the time, which have since been strengthened, he said.
In statements to investigators, the operator said he had been suffering from fatigue because of being overworked.
In its statement, Metro said it has “met on multiple occasions with our labor organizations to review proposed revisions to existing fatigue management programs which apply the principles of fatigue science to safety sensitive positions.”
The agency said current employee schedules “exceed the minimum standards established by the existing fatigue risk management program and the proposed revisions.”
The train operator describes the incident in a written statement included in the report.
“While coming around the curve I was unable to see the train ahead of me due to no marker or taillights indication, also my train had no overspeed protection indication at the time of the collision.” Investigators found the statement to be untrue.
No passengers were on either train at the time of the crash.
David L. Mayer, chief executive of the safety commission, called the wreck Metro’s “most significant” safety event in years and said it underscores long-standing, unaddressed issues that Metro must immediately correct.
“If there had been passengers on either of these trains, there likely would have been injuries,” Mayer said during the commission’s monthly meeting.
The crash, which took place just before 1 a.m., occurred just after both trains finished carrying passengers after a Washington Nationals playoff game. Both trains, older-model 3000-series equipment, were being positioned in preparation for the morning commute when a systemwide “zero speed” or halt command was issued.
According to investigators, the operator of train No. 700 resumed moving on the Blue/Orange/Silver line without a signal or permission from the rail operations control center, moving and stopping repeatedly until his train hit the back of Train No. 755 at a speed of 11 mph.
Metro trains are designed to not operate above 15 mph when a zero-speed command is issued, so the operator was able to move his train because he kept its speed below that threshold. Additionally, Metro trains’ emergency braking systems, which stop trains when they get too close to another, do not work during zero-speed commands.
Metro has been looking for solutions that would wrest control or prohibit movements by operators during zero-speed commands.
But the conduct of the operator in the striking train after the crash and questions about his work record raised concerns among safety commission members.
After the crash, the operator told investigators he had permission or a “speed code” to operate at 40 mph and was moving at 25 mph. He said the train that was stopped ahead did not have any lights on. Investigators said the statement proved to be false.
He also refused to turn over his cellphone, investigators said. A search of records showed that the phone was being used at the time of the crash.
According to the commission report, the man began working for Metro on Nov. 5, 1999, as a Metrobus operator. In August 2005, records show, he became a Metrorail operator. The stint only lasted 18 months because of several infractions, including a collision, red signal overrun and station overruns. He was disqualified from his position in September 2006.
The operator returned to driving Metrobuses until 2010, when he was reinstated as a train operator. In 2011, he was cited for a red signal violation and was involved in a derailment in 2013. Two years later, commission officials said, he failed to report station overruns — when trains overshoot the point where they should stop at platforms. He also had been reported for operating a train with his cab door open while talking to a passenger that same year.
The operator told investigators he had not been involved in any operational incidents in three years, commission officials said, and nine ride checks in 2019 revealed no problems with the operator.
Safety commission Chairman Christopher Hart asked what the threshold was for an operator to be fired or removed from driving, and an investigator didn’t know but said it was negotiated by Metro and ATU Local 689. According to the agreement, workers can reapply for reinstatement after a minimum of 18 months.
Commission officials said the former operator is not eligible to be rehired.
The commission ordered Metro to develop and distribute a “lesson’s learned” memo to be issued to rail workers “with an emphasis of proper operation when trains” are halted under zero-speed commands, the report said. Metro has already complied, circulating a memo about a month after the crash titled “Collision Due to Carelessness and Bad Habits.”
Metro has also committed to installing software in older trains that will provide operators with better awareness of when to stop and proceed.