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Washington Metro Crash Prompts Call for Transit Rules

Washington D.C. Metro Crash
Rescue workers respond to the site of two Metrorail trains that collided during the evening rush hour on June 22, 2009 in Washington, DC. Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

A breakdown of safety measures that contributed to a deadly 2009 commuter-train crash in Washington should lead to federal regulation of transit systems, the top U.S. transportation safety investigator said.

The crash that killed eight Washington Metro riders and a train operator will spur efforts to add federal oversight of transit systems now regulated by only state and local authorities, National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman said today at a hearing in Washington on the incident’s causes.

“Now it’s really time for them to step up to the plate and for Congress to address the issue,” she said. “We move more people in transit than we do in the aviation system every day.”

The June 2009 accident, which injured 52 passengers, occurred when a moving train plowed at full speed into one that was stopped. A track circuit, part of an automated-train control system, failed to detect the stopped train. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called last year for Congress to authorize U.S. regulators to set minimum safety standards for commuter rail and bus transit.

“The state oversight system is not effective, they don’t have any teeth,” Hersman said. The Transportation Department rejected previous NTSB recommendations that it could assert authority over transit systems without waiting for new legislation, she said.

The department regulates safety on heavy rail systems, such as Amtrak, and not on transit lines such as Washington’s Metro and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s subways in New York.

Car Crushed

About half of the first car in the moving train was crushed in the Washington Metro crash. The car was among Metro’s oldest, and the safety board has criticized the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which runs the commuter trains, for failing to act on past recommendations to retire or strengthen cars dating back to the system’s creation in the 1970s.

The transit authority is now replacing those cars, saying in a statement yesterday that retiring the 1000 Series fleet is its “No. 1 safety priority.” Metro is buying 428 new cars from Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd., based in Kobe, Japan.

Robert Sumwalt, an NTSB member, said federal and state regulators are among many parties that should share the blame for the Washington accident.

‘Organizational Accident’

“This accident is a classic example of an organizational accident,” he said, also blaming Metro’s employees, managers and board, and the designers and manufacturers of the train-control system, which were Alstom Signaling Inc. and Ansaldo STS USA. “Quite simply, there were failures up and down the line.”

The accident investigation found “layers of safety deficiencies” that “reveal a systemic breakdown of safety management at all levels,” Hersman said.

Metro employees received about 8,000 false alarms each week warning of track-circuit glitches, the NTSB found in its investigation. The volume of alarms warning of circuits incorrectly detecting the presence of trains or failing to detect their locations was so high that they were ignored, said NTSB member Mark Rosekind.

“Just as we have worked proactively and cooperatively with the NTSB to implement recommendations during the last year in advance of the NTSB’s final findings, we stand ready to continue to work with them to build on our progress to date,” Richard Sarles, Metro’s interim general manager, said today in a statement. He replaced John Catoe, Metro’s general manager at the time of the crash, who resigned earlier this year.

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