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Close call: Speeding Metro train nearly strikes federal inspectors on tracks

A speeding train nearly struck two federal track inspectors at National Airport station. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
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A Metro train almost struck two federal inspectors walking on the tracks near National Airport station on Thursday morning.

Officials with the Federal Transit Administration said Friday afternoon that two of their inspectors walking the tracks were forced to leap out of the way of an oncoming train that was traveling faster than the speed limit and never slowed down as it approached the inspectors.

“A train exceeding temporary speed restrictions failed to slow or stop, forcing two FTA inspectors to jump out of harm’s way,” FTA said.

Metro spokesman Richard L. Jordan said Metro Chief Safety Officer Patrick Lavin is investigating the incident. Jordan said there were two operators aboard the train, and that both have been taken out of service until the conclusion of the investigation.

The Federal Transit Administration is also investigating the incident, and why the operator failed to follow the speed restriction. According to rules put in place by Metro earlier this year, trains must slow to 10 mph if there are inspectors present on the tracks who will need to clear to an elevated platform before the train passes.

“The speed restrictions were in place as part of WMATA’s roadway worker protection safety procedures,” FTA’s statement said. “FTA has directed, and is working with WMATA, to investigate the incident and to understand what occurred.”

The FTA took over the safety oversight responsibilities for Metro one year ago.

Thursday’s incident was similar to another on July 5, in which a train operator ignored a red signal on the tracks, sped through an interlocking, crossed over onto the opposite side of the tracks and nearly struck two track walkers who yelled and screamed to get the operator’s attention. The train came to a stop about 1,000 feet before coming into contact with a train coming in the opposite direction.

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“You have to ask yourself, ‘How could this have still happened?’ The answer isn’t very pretty,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) after that incident in July. “I think it says a lot about the culture of mediocrity that has unfortunately descended upon Metro over a decade. And it puts lives at risk. There has been an indifference to safety violations such as this.”

Metro officials will likely address the incident at the next meeting of the Metro board safety committee, which is scheduled for Thursday.

In inspection reports made public in recent months, FTA officials remained concerned that not all train operators were adhering to the speed restrictions. In August, they noted that Metro’s staff was growing more compliant, and they praised the rail operations control center for making frequent announcements over the radio system that warned operators to stay aware of zones where they would need to slow down.

Even so, inspectors warned that Metro needed more frequent checks to ensure that operators were reliably slowing down when necessary.

“WMATA needs to adopt a program that requires random downloads of [speed radar detector information] of trains on a monthly basis to ensure trains are operating at required speeds on each line,” inspectors wrote. “WMATA supervision needs to meet with crews when they sign up for their shift and discuss the speed requirements on the line segment they are operating on.”