- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 25, 2009

Metro’s failure to replace rail cars involved in Monday’s deadly Red Line crash was not the first time the transit agency has left unfulfilled urgent safety recommendations by federal investigators in recent years.

The National Transportation Safety Board in 2007 - after the rail system’s last serious accident, which injured 20 people - made two recommendations to Metro that remain unfulfilled, according to board records. One said the agency should address maintenance procedures to reduce the potential for derailments. The second unfulfilled recommendation is that Metro should replace a type of rail-line switches, known as turnouts, that enable trains to switch from one set of tracks to another.

Officials continued to research the cause of Monday’s accident, which left nine dead and about 80 injured after one train slammed into a stopped train near the Fort Totten station. Investigators on Wednesday said an automated circuit located near the scene of the crash showed an “anomaly” after being tested.

The circuit, a 740-foot section of track, was designed to relay signals to Metro trains - including commands to stop in case another train ahead is stationary - and officials have been at a loss to explain why the computerized system did not stop the moving train in Monday’s crash.

“We’re particularly interested in the speed commands that might be sent from that circuit when there’s a train standing on that circuit,” NTSB member Debbie Hersman said.

Ms. Hersman said five of the six circuits that were tested “operated per standard” by recognizing a device that simulates train wheels on the track. One circuit, however, did not recognize the device, called a “shunt.”

Ms. Hersman also said Metro records show the striking train was not overdue for brake maintenance, contrary to published reports. Records showed that the circuit in question had scheduled maintenance within the past month.

Investigators also found that a stretch of track underneath the striking train showed a blue tint, suggesting that the emergency brakes had been activated. They said Tuesday that the train’s emergency brake button, known as a “mushroom,” was depressed, and that the train’s operator, Jeanice McMillan, 42, who was killed in the accident, may have attempted to stop the train before the crash.

A sight-distance test designed to determine the speed of the train before the crash also will be conducted this weekend. Investigators said the crash wreckage has been moved away from the scene to allow Metro to resume normal train service in the area.

Meanwhile, at least eight other recommendations to Metro in the past two years were deemed by NTSB officials to have received “acceptable” responses, including one related to wheel truing and another to “establish a process … to prompt timely evaluation and action on proposed safety improvements that are identified as a result of accident and derailment investigations and related research projects.”

But the two unfulfilled recommendations were related to the Jan. 7, 2007, derailment of a Metro train near the Mount Vernon Square/7th Street-Convention Center station, which injured 20 people. One said the agency should delineate procedures that should address interdepartmental communication and could help decrease the “potential for a wheel-climb derailment.”

The second relates to the replacement by 2009 of the turnouts, which Metro said would not be achievable “due to procurement, manufacturing and operational limitations.”

In 2006, the NTSB also recommended that all 1000-series cars be replaced or refurbished. The board noted they were “susceptible to telescoping and potentially subject to a catastrophic compromise of the occupant survival space.”

But the next year, months after current General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. took over in January 2007, NTSB officials said that Metro did not plan to overhaul the cars but instead replace them with a 7000-series car. They said the older cars were expected to remain in service until late 2014 because the agency was constrained by leases.

The moving train that slammed into the standing train Monday was made up of the 1000-series cars. In an online chat in February 2008, Mr. Catoe also acknowledged brake problems with the very same rail cars.

“I think the safety board makes recommendations because we believe that they can improve the safety of transportation,” said Ms. Hersman, who stressed the safety board has no regulatory or grant-making authority to help enforce its advice. “What we can share with people is the lessons that we have learned in order to save lives. It is up to other people to implement those recommendations.”

Since 1982, Metro has had six actions closed classified as unacceptable, according to the NTSB database. Since 1971, the NTSB has closed 271 railroad safety recommendations and deemed the response unacceptable.

Metro is one of only seven railroads to currently have recommendations categorized as open with an unacceptable response. There are currently 14 recommendations so listed. There have also been three railroads from which there was no response to the NTSB and the recommendation was closed, categorized as unacceptable.

Metro officials said they intend to replace the 1000-series cars as soon as possible, but the cost has been prohibitive. 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.

On Wednesday, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said that he wants to introduce legislation that would finalize plans to provide $1.5 billion in federal funds to Metro over 10 years. Congress had previously requested that the District, Maryland and Virginia also spend $1.5 billion, and all three jurisdictions served by Metro agreed.

“That’s what’s really needed here,” D.C. Council member Jim Graham, chairmain of the Metro board. “We can nibble at the edges of this, but let’s deal with it head on and get these cars replaced.”

Barry Sweedler, a former head of the NTSB’s Office of Safety Recommendations, said the board hopes a problem gets fixed as soon as possible after it makes a recommendation.

“You can see [the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority] is feeling some heat on retrofitting or replacing the cars. They basically told the NTSB they wouldn’t do it. Now they have to explain to the public, to Congress why they didn’t do it,” Mr. Sweedler said.

Calling it tombstone technology, Mr. Sweedler said that Metro isn’t alone in citing money as the cause of its slow reaction time.

“Until you have a bunch of dead people, they don’t want to get pushed too hard,” he said.

• Michael Drost contributed to this report.

• Gary Emerling can be reached at gemerling@washingtontimes.com.

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