- The Washington Times - Friday, July 31, 2009

Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. said problems traced to a 30-year-old computer system being eyed in connection with last month’s train crash could have consequences for transit systems nationwide.

He made the comments during a wide-ranging interview with editors and reporters at The Washington Times on Thursday, a day after the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said it was looking at track circuit modules in a control room near the Fort Totten Metro station in connection with the June 22 crash that killed nine people and injured more than 80.

“With this, depending again what they ultimately find, could be much larger. It’s an issue, depending upon what they find, not just for [the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority]. We’re not the only one with this type of system. Most rail operations around the country have a similar system to this,” said Mr. Catoe, who insisted he was speculating and distanced himself from the NTSB investigation.

“If they find, let’s say, that there’s a defect in the part, then you have to look at all the parts around the country because there’s only two manufacturers of those parts,” he said.

Mr. Catoe said he could not comment on the ongoing crash investigation but that he had his own suspicions about the cause of the crash.

“I don’t have any doubt that it was in the train-control system,” he said.

The total financial cost of the accident is unclear, but Mr. Catoe said the least amount Metro likely will pay will be the insurance deductible of $5 million per accident.

The cost has already been borne in other ways. Metro’s insurance premiums, which were renewed July 1, nearly doubled to $8 million per year, he said. He said the costs don’t account for whatever solution the NTSB ultimately will recommend.

“I know there’s something we’re going to have to do,” he said. “Something will come out of this that needs to be replaced. And I don’t know what that is yet,” he said.

Indications are that the final price tag for the cash-strapped system could be in the billions of dollars.

Before the accident, Metro was in the process of replacing the 1000-series rail cars to accommodate a past NTSB recommendation at a cost of $900 million. The NTSB wants Metro to implement a new fail-safe system, which must be designed and built, that will digitally monitor and automatically create trouble tickets for the system. It is expected to cost almost $1 billion, Mr. Catoe said.

That digital monitoring program could be used by other rail systems across the country, and Mr. Catoe has a meeting scheduled with other transit managers in the coming weeks to discuss the creation of the system. He said Metro probably will pay the largest amount for whatever system is created because it will be the first to implement it.

Mr. Catoe also said Red Line riders should expect to encounter delays for at least a year because of the ongoing accident investigation. He said whatever safety recommendations the board makes to increase safety will be implemented, no matter how disruptive they may be to service.

“If this is an issue dealing with the safety of the system, I’m not going to restrict the repairs to nighttime. I’m going to get it as soon as I can get it done. And we will look at ways to do that, but that will impact the service on the Red Line,” he said.

Those repairs may translate to hours or days of no service in areas as Metro completes large-scale repairs.

“Now that we’re getting into heavy revamp of the system, it will be impacting services for the next several years,” Mr. Catoe said. To lessen disruptions to the system, Metro will rethink how it schedules maintenance. Suggestions include doing large repairs on holidays or specific days of the week like Tuesdays and Thursdays.

But one thing is clear now, “Metro is in the need of billions of dollars of capital funding to rebuild the infrastructure,” he said.

Since the accident, that money appears to be moving toward Metro faster. The House of Representatives has fast-tracked $150 million in funding for the system, but with the Senate still to vote, Metro is in a holding pattern while it awaits the money to begin the costly replacement of rail cars and other system upgrades.

Mr. Catoe said it also has been hard for the system to get spending approval for much-needed federal stimulus money. The system was awarded $201 million, but has received permission to spend only $18 million on various projects.

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