Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The National Transportation Safety Board recommended three years ago that Metro replace or refurbish the type of train car involved in Monday’s fatal crash - a suggestion that the District’s heralded transit agency failed to aggressively follow.

The day after the deadliest crash in Metro’s 33-year-history was filled with more questions about what caused one Red Line train to slam into a stopped train Monday evening near the Fort Totten station, killing at least nine people and injuring about 80.

Mourners held a prayer service outside the transit agency’s headquarters in Northwest, and federal investigators briefed Metro’s board of directors on details of the horrific accident.

D.C. fire officials turned over control of the crash scene in Northeast to the National Transportation Safety Board at 1 p.m. Board member Debbie Hersman said investigators already had determined that the moving train had been in automatic mode at the time of the crash and that the train’s emergency brake was engaged, although it was not clear whether it was depressed prior to the crash by operator Jeanice McMillan, who was killed in the accident.

Ms. Hersman said that the crash occurred on a curved portion of the track where speed was restricted and that maintenance had been performed on the train-control system - a computerized sensor system that can alert a train that other trains are stopped on a track - between Fort Totten station and New Hampshire Avenue overpass earlier this month.

She said investigators also planned to study Ms. McMillan’s work history, medical records and toxicology reports, along with cell phone records and nine recorders pulled from the stopped train.

“We’re going to leave no stone unturned,” she said.

Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. likened the computerized sensor system to an air-traffic-control system and said it can stop trains when a problem occurs on a track. He said the system also has a mechanical override that did not engage during the afternoon rush-hour crash Monday, but he declined to speculate on why it did not engage.

Mr. Catoe also discounted reports that the moving train that caused the crash was overdue for scheduled maintenance, saying all documentation had been handed over to NTSB investigators.

“There’s no documentation that this particular car was scheduled to receive maintenance,” he said.

However, the train was made up of Series 1000 rail cars, which were described in a 2006 NTSB report as “subject to a catastrophic compromise.” A record of recommendations made by the NTSB to the transit agency - provided by the safety board Tuesday - detail concerns about the rail car model since at least 2002.

Metro officials that year cited a study performed by Booz Allen Hamilton that found adding reinforcement to the existing Metrorail cars - including the Series 1000 model - “is neither desirable nor practical.” The study said measures needed to strengthen the cars could lead to more severe injuries, and other measures to improve their crash resistance would be extremely difficult and impractical.

The safety board said in May 2002 that the agency’s position on the existing fleet was “reasonable.”

But an NTSB report on a 2004 Red Line crash that injured 20 said the failure of the underframe-end structure on the 1000-series cars “may make them susceptible to telescoping and potentially subject to a catastrophic compromise of the occupant survival space.”

The safety board issued a recommendation that the transit agency speed up the retirement of the rail cars or retrofit them with better collision protection. Then in 2007, officials said that Metro did not plan to overhaul the cars but instead replace them with a 7000-series car and that the older cars were expected to remain in service until late 2014 because the agency was constrained by leases.

“In view of WMATA’s response to the Board’s recommendation, it appears that further dialogue on this issue would prove futile,” NTSB records state.

The 1000-series cars were purchased between 1974 and 1978 and make up roughly 300 of Metro’s fleet of more than 1,100 cars. In a February 2008 online chat, Mr. Catoe also said the 1000-series cars had brake problems.

Ms. Hersman on Tuesday said the board recommended in 2006 that such cars be retrofitted or phased out, but Metro failed to do that.

“The case was closed in an unacceptable status,” Ms. Hersman said.

Metro spokeswoman Angela Gates said that officials have been planning to replace the cars as part of their next capital improvement program and that they already have started the procurement process for a new series of rail cars.

An agency spending document shows that the total cost for replacing the cars would be more than $841 million, or $2.8 million per car.

“Obviously, the 1000-series cars have been still in service, and we’ve been phasing them out as we can,” Ms. Gates said. “But rail cars are very expensive, and it’s been a slow process.”

D.C. Council member and Metro board Chairman Jim Graham said that officials are “aggressively seeking” to replace the 1000-series cars, and that officials have received bids in response to a request for proposal that included cars needed for the Dulles rail extension and several hundred additional cars.

Mr. Graham said the system still has “very substantial” capital needs. He called on Congress to keep its funding commitment to the agency and said Mr. Catoe has been in contact with the federal government regarding economic stimulus funds to help accelerate replacement of the dated rail cars.

“We have already taken action before this terrible tragedy in order to achieve that objective,” Mr. Graham said.

D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said that the agency had not been funded to replace the rail cars, but that Mr. Catoe told her that replacing the 1000-series cars was a priority, using $600 million of $1.5 billion allotted to Metro over 10 years.

The congresswoman also said the rail car model was found to be “un-crashworthy” by NTSB after a 1996 crash at the Shady Grove Metro station, when a four-car train struck a standing, unoccupied train, fatally injuring the operator of the moving cars.

In a report after the accident, the safety board said both trains consisted of 3000-series rail cars, but still recommended that Metro should evaluate the crashworthiness of all its models.

“The Safety Board believes that WMATA should undertake … a comprehensive evaluation of the design and design specifications of all series of Metrorail cars with respect to resisting carbody telescoping and providing better passenger protection, and that it should make the necessary modifications, such as incorporating underframe bracing or similar features, to improve the crashworthiness of cars in the current and/or future Metrorail fleet,” the 1996 report states.

The safety board’s prior recommendations also touched on federal officials. In a 2006 letter to the Federal Transit Administration regarding the 2004 crash, officials said the FTA should establish minimum crashworthiness standards for transit rail cars.

FTA spokesman Paul Griffo said Tuesday that his agency is barred by federal law from regulating the operation of a transit agency, which would include establishing such regulations. But he said the FTA contributed financial support to the creation of a “voluntary industry standard” developed by the American Public Transportation Association and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

Joseph Weber and Michael Drost contributed to this report.

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