- The Washington Times - Monday, June 12, 2000

A runaway subway train filled with rush-hour passengers rolled out of control for about 150 feet May 26 because a Metro Operations Control Center controller ordered a recovery train to ride to the rescue from above the disabled train a clear violation of Metro safety rules and the laws of gravity.

In-house documents and interviews with Metro employees show the controller's order to approach the disabled Red Line train from the high side would have only one outcome if the two trains failed to couple properly the stranded train, stuck between the Woodley Park-Zoo and Dupont Circle Metrorail stations, would roll backward.

The maneuver failed when the brakes of the Red Line train were released and the two trains uncoupled, forcing the disabled train's operator to run through the car, manually setting the brakes while the cars continued downhill, out of control.

The Washington Times first reported the incident on Thursday. Metro made no mention of the foul-up until that day, when it began a public investigation.

One of its first acts was to suspend Kenny Brown, the operator of the Red Line train.

The controller who issued the orders has not been disciplined.

The operator of the recovery train was suspended May 26, immediately after the incident.

The botched coupling is the second time in three months the employees of the operations control center failed to follow Metro's rules and sent passengers into harm's way.

On April 20, The Times discovered that safety rules were not followed during a tunnel fire near the Foggy Bottom Metrorail station. Dispatchers failed to report the fire immediately to the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department.

Instead the dispatcher sent a train filled with passengers into the tunnel as a sort of probe to investigate the cause of the smoke. The train ended up stranded, along with its 293 passengers.

Metro employees said the fault for the runaway train on May 26 belonged to the control center controller who sent the recovery train in from the wrong direction.

"Central control was at fault. They have complete control," said a Metro employee familiar with the incident. "They violated safety rules. They should have come up the hill behind the train, rather than above it. They screwed it up."

Bea Hicks, chief operating officer of rail services, said people can "second guess after the fact" but people must be able to make decisions that conflict with the rule book.

She said the safety rule book is a set of "guidelines… . [It doesn't] take the place of good, solid, independent judgment."

"They came the way they did in a way that was the most efficient and effective way to recover the train," Ms. Hicks said.

By some accounts, Mr. Brown, who was suspended for five days Thursday, deserves thanks, not a suspension.

Metro employees on the scene said that when the coupling to the recovery train failed, Mr. Brown rushed through his disabled train to manually set the brakes and prevent it from moving farther than 150 feet.

Ms. Hicks confirmed that no one in the operations control center was suspended.

The Metrorail Safety Rule Procedure Handbook says the operation control center is responsible for coordination and control of the recovery train's operation. The rules say the recovery train should always go uphill when it couples to a disabled train.

"The recovery train shall always approach the defective train from the low side of the grade when the defective train's brakes need to be cut out to move," the rule book says. "The recovery train shall then push the defective train upgrade or pull the defective train downgrade to the next station for offloading passengers."

Metro employees say they get suspended or fired for violating the rules.

"Why do we have to worry about rules if they just ignore them," an employee asked.

The National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Transit Administration ruled that Metro's failure to follow its own safety book was one cause of a fatal accident at Shady Grove on Jan. 6, 1996, when a train operator crashed into a parked train.

The NTSB cited Metro for issuing orders that conflicted with the safety rule handbook the same rules that were violated during the May 26 runaway train incident.

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