Technology is supposed to prevent the sort of catastrophic crash that occurred Monday on Washington’s heralded subway system. As investigators began sifting through the twisted metal wreckage, the alert system designed to warn when Metro trains get too close and the initial call summoning rescue help emerged as two early subjects of inquiry.
Fire officials stated bluntly Monday night that Metro’s original description of the accident understated its magnitude, and it was only when the first rescuers arrived at the scene that the sort of help needed was finally summoned.
“A little after five o’clock we responded to what was believed to be a small incident,” D.C. Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin said. “The first arriving company recognized the fact that apparently two trains had collided.” Fire officials eventually sounded three alarms, summoning hundreds of rescuers and implementing their mass- casualty operations.
A Metro press release issued shortly after 5:30 p.m. Monday incorrectly said the accident occurred after a train headed out of the city derailed on the Red Line. Officials later said a six-car Red Line train headed into the city stopped to wait for a third train to clear the platform at the Fort Totten station and was slammed into by another train from behind shortly after 5 p.m.
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Authorities remained at a loss to explain the origins of the deadliest crash in Metrorail’s 33-year history Monday night. Federal investigators vowed to explore every potential cause of the accident that killed at least nine and injured more than 70: from train and track maintenance to operator training and equipment failures.
Experts focused their immediate attention on a system that is supposed to alert a train if it is approaching another.
Barry M. Sweedler, a former National Transportation Safety Board investigator and senior manager who now works for the consulting firm Safety and Policy Analysis International, said the trains should have had a system in place to bring the train to a stop if another is in its path.
“I believe that will be one of the major areas the NTSB will be looking at. Was it defective, was it overridden by the dispatcher or the operator?” Mr. Sweedler said. “The system is supposed to be in place; but if you’re operating in some kind of manual mode, there may be some instances where the system could be disabled.
“Much of this is probably recorded someplace, so they’ll try to piece it together, they’ll try to re-create the crash, just to get an idea of sight distance, what the signals showed, what the operator may have seen,” Mr. Sweedler added.
Jackie Jeter, head of the union that represents most Metro employees, including train operators, said the system to stop the train is called “automatic train protection.”
“What happens is that once you get too close, you lose your speed command, and when you lose your speed command, the train’s going to stop,” said Mrs. Jeter, who would not speculate on an exact cause of the crash. “There are a lot of questions, because there are a lot of relays on a train that are supposed to prohibit this type of thing from happening.”
Metro General Manger John B. Catoe Jr. acknowledged the agency has an alert system and said investigators would be looking into why the train may have run through “whatever signals that might have been coming.”
He said operators also are instructed to run their trains automatically during peak hours, but could not say whether the train involved in Monday’s crash had been running on automatic or manual operation.
A NTSB report that investigated a 2004 Metro crash that injured 20 described how train operations on the Red Line are governed by a traffic-control system that controls train movements in both directions on two main tracks.
The mainline routes are divided into blocks that are checked for “train occupancy” by audio-frequency track circuits. Other devices “inject coded signals into the track that detect the presence of a train in the block and automatically transmit limiting and regulated speeds to passing trains,” the report states.
The train that hit the stalled train also was a Series 1000, the oldest train in the Metro fleet, purchased between 1974 and 1978 and expected to have a 40-year life. A Metro spending document from October 2008 outlines the plan to replace the cars with new 7000-series rail cars by noting that the cars’ aluminum structure was becoming “brittle and fatigued with age and use.”
In a February 2008 online chat, Mr. Catoe also said the 1000-series cars had brake problems. He vowed a thorough investigation Monday aimed at preventing such crashes in the future.
“Our safety officials are investigating, and will continue to investigate until we determine why this happened and what must be done to ensure it never happens again,” Mr. Catoe said.
In November 2004, an unoccupied six-car train headed for a rail yard backed into an occupied train that was stopped at the platform in the Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan station on the Red Line.
The crash injured 20 people, and investigators said the probable cause of the accident was the train operator’s failure to apply the brakes, likely because of “reduced alertness.” Investigators said the train’s lack of rollback protection — a system that can automatically apply train brakes if necessary to prevent a dangerous rollback — also contributed to the crash.
“If the equipment on Train 703 had been equipped with a rollback-protection feature in the manual mode, the train could have been safely stopped, regardless of the train operators action or inaction, and the accident could have been prevented,” the NTSB report states.
The only other accident in Metro’s history that resulted in riders being killed occurred in January 1982, when three people died after a derailment between the Federal Triangle and Smithsonian Metrorail stations.
After Monday’s crash, officials said it likely would be days before a cause was determined. The NTSB dispatched a team to investigate the crash, and spokeswoman Bridget Serchak said officials arrived on the scene shortly before 8 p.m.
“We literally just walked on scene,” she said. “We’re looking down at the train.”
As in 2004, both trains involved in Monday’s crash were on the same track, although Mr. Catoe said the trains were not single-tracking, a term used when trains going in opposite directions share the same track.
The crash also occurred more than two years after a Green Line train derailed near the Mount Vernon Square/Seventh Street-Convention Center station, injuring 20 passengers and prompting a massive emergency response.
That accident happened after the fifth car of a six-car, northbound train crossed a rail switch and left the tracks. Metro was running trains along one track between the Mount Vernon and L’Enfant Plaza stations when it occurred.
• Jerry Seper contributed to this report