Thursday, July 2, 2009

The train-detection system that failed in last month’s catastrophic Metro accident began malfunctioning after it was replaced five days before the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday.

The revelation came the same day that Jeanice McMillan, the operator of the train that plowed into the back of a stopped train near the Fort Totten station, was buried in her native Buffalo, N.Y.

The cause of the June 22 Red Line accident has yet to be determined. Investigators say there is evidence that Ms. McMillan applied the emergency brake before the crash that killed her and eight others and injured about 80.

While the investigation is ongoing, the NTSB reported Wednesday that Metro provided maintenance records to the federal agency showing that the liaison device that communicates things like speed and distance among trains, the operations center and the tracks was replaced June 17.

After it was installed, “the track circuit periodically lost its ability to detect trains,” the NTSB said.

In a press release sent out by Metro in response to the NTSB report, General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. stressed the safety of the system.

“I want to assure our riders that the Metrorail system is as safe as it can be,” he said.

The NTSB previously reported that initial tests showed the train-control system wasn’t able to detect a test train that investigators stopped in the same spot as the struck train. In its report, the NTSB said it was continuing to examine records about the track circuit from before and after the part was replaced.

Before the accident, Metro tested the track monthly, but workers now test daily to ensure everything is working correctly, officials said.

The NTSB said it was collecting additional data to analyze the train detection system and that in testing conducted last weekend the system intermittently failed.

NTSB spokeswoman Bridget Ann Serchak said the agency could not provide any additional information at this time.

“At this point, we are providing facts gathered by our investigators. We are not in the results or analysis or conclusion stage of our investigation,” she said.

Metro announced Tuesday several measures aimed at increasing safety. There will be an independent review of signals and circuitry, Mr. Catoe said in a press release. All staff working with signal and track responsibilities will work out of the main operations department and all 3,000 track circuits will be inspected.

Additionally, trains on the Red Line will not exceed 35 miles per hour; all trains are being operated manually; and the 1000-Series rail cars that crumpled in the crash will be relocated to the center of the trains to protect them from impact.

Over the July 18 weekend, investigators will conduct sight-distance tests to establish when the struck train would have been visible to Ms. McMillan.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported that at a two-hour funeral service in Buffalo, Brian Brooks, the operator of the struck train, called his colleague a hero.

“She saved lives,” Mr. Brooks said.

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