Deadly Collision on the D.C. Metro: The Questions Begin

The latest numbers, which began circulating just before midnight, have at least nine people dead and dozens more injured in the rush-hour crash on the Washington Metro’s Red Line. Now that a deadly accident has taken place on the subway line I ride every day, I guess I’ll have to suspend my obsession with the Air France 447 disaster for a little while, and think about safety risks closer to home.

There’s been no official word yet about probable causes, and I’m sure there won’t be for some time. But here’s a roundup of some possibilities we’re sure to be hearing more about in the days and weeks to come.

By last night, the Washington Post had already confirmed what some veteran Metro riders might well have begun to suspect on their own: The automatic “fail safes” built into the system obviously failed. The Post reports: 

Metro was designed with a fail-safe computerized signal system that is supposed to prevent trains from colliding. The agency’s trains are run by onboard computers that control speed and braking. Another electronic system detects the position of trains to maintain a safe distance between them. If they get too close, the computers automatically apply the brakes, stopping the trains. These systems were supposed to make yesterday’s crash impossible.

This isn’t the first time the Metro’s signal systems have failed–the Post story documents several others. In addition, the whole computerized system was shut down for a year and a half in 1999 to 2000, and the system run manually by train operators, because repairs were needed on the communications “relays”:

During the past decade, Metro has struggled with troublesome communications relays. The agency tore out all 20,000 trackside relays in 1999 after discovering that a small portion designed to last 70 years were failing after 25. They sent erroneous instructions to trains on several occasions. One train was told to travel 45 mph on a stretch of track with a 15-mph speed limit; another was directed to travel at zero mph when it should have been ordered to move at 15 mph. The manufacturer, Alstom Signaling, agreed to replace the relays.

The TransportGooru blog provides some more information on the relays:  

Investigators will probably focus on a failure of Metro’s computerized signal system, which is designed to prevent trains from coming close enough to collide, as well as operator error, according to former Metro officials. The system relies on electronic relays — about the size of a hardcover book — aboard trains and buried beside the tracks along each line. When a train gets too close to another train, the system is designed to automatically stop the approaching train. It should work regardless of whether trains are being operated manually or by computer. Metro has had trouble with its signal system in recent years, and replaced all 20,000 trackside relays in 2000 after discovering that a small portion were failing.

Of course, the driver–who died in the collision–could have stepped on the brakes when the train failed to slow automatically. No one knows, or will probably ever know, why she didn’t (although the nasty commenters on the Post story were quick to conclude that she must have either been on drugs or texting.) But we can and should find out why the system’s built-in safety measures failed.

The New York Times story on the crash quoted Peter Goelz, former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board, who said: “This is an aging system and one that needs to be looked at very closely.”

An aging system? The Washington Metro began operation, after numerous delays, in 1976, and to date at least a dozen riders have been killed on the system. (Three died in a 1982 derailment.) The New York City subway system–which operates 24-hours-a-day and carries more riders than all other U.S. rail mass transit systems combined–has been running since 1904, with about 30 riders killed in 105 years, only 7 of them since 1976.

But the D.C. Metro has to contend with something that the New York subway and other urban mass transit systems do not: the United States Congress, which has a hand in everything that goes on in the District, especially when it comes to funding. One alert commenter on the Daily Kos blog last night linked to a local WTOP radio story from last September: 

Worn-out and run down, the Metro system is in disrepair. The transit agency’s financial troubles are well documented, with nearly $500 million needed to fix a list of “urgent unfunded needs” — everything from crumbling platforms to frail track fasteners that are supposed to keep rail lines in place.

But as Metro looks toward Capitol Hill for help, one major roadblock is standing in the way: Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., has authored a bill which would provide $1.5 billion for Metro over the next 10 years. If the bill passes, Virginia, Maryland and D.C. have agreed they will match the $1.5 billion. The funds would go a long way for Metro, which is the only major transportation system in the nation that lacks a dedicated source of funding.

But the Davis bill, as it is currently constructed, will likely never make its way past Coburn. “I’m happy to be a roadblock to that bill,” Coburn tells WTOP. “It’s $1.5 billion they want, we (the government) don’t have the money to pay for it, so where are we going to get the money?”

Coburn doesn’t think one penny of funding for Metro should come from American taxpayers. “How dare us say we are going to steal opportunity from our children so that we can have a ride on the Metro. I think the vast majority of Americans would disagree with that.”

Anyone who lives or works in D.C. knows what it’s like to have your daily commute depend upon the largesse of the U.S. Congress. Not a pretty picture. Reuters yesterday provided an update on the current state of the D.C. Metro’s infrastructure and finances:

Riddled with an infrastructure that includes leaking tunnels and crumbling platforms, Metro projects it will need more than $7 billion to keep its system of trains and buses in a state of good repair through 2020. It also projects it will need to replace one-third of its rail cars, some of which are more than 30 years old.

The U.S. recession has forced Metro to cut its operating budgets this fiscal year by 10 percent, freeze hiring and end outside contracts. Last month, it had to tap reserves to close a funding gap for fiscal year 2010 that at one point was projected to reach $154 million.

At least when there are problems on the New York City subway, whether they be deadly accidents or daily delays, New Yorkers can look to their own democratically elected officials for redress. Here in the nation’s capital, our lives are in the hands of 535 men and women from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Hawaii, South Carolina, and 46 other states–most of whom travel to Capitol Hill each day in limousines at the taxpayers’ expense, and never set foot on the D.C. Metro.

3 responses to “Deadly Collision on the D.C. Metro: The Questions Begin

  1. Having spent 36 years in the rail industry, the last few as the deputy chief of field operations for a major commuter railroad let me offer the following:

    1. we don’t know yet what happened and
    2. I wouldn’t be one to deny the negative impact of budget restrictions, but deteriorating track geometry, and po0r station platform conditions have nothing to do with signal design and the safe separation of trains.
    3. It is possible that the automatic systems either onboard the train, or trackside, failed and provided a “false proceed.” This is exceedingly rare, but possible. In 23 years in commuter rail, I recall only 1 or 2 incidents that actually were “false proceeds” upon investigation.
    4. It is also possible that the train operator disabled the system for some reason

  2. Rob Bartsch

    The NY Post has reported that the subway operator did apply the emergency brakes but the train did not stop in time.

    Apparently, this system is run by computers and these devices occassionaly go haywire often resulting in unnecessary deaths.

    The Airbus AF447 flight that crashed on June 1, killing all aboard, has a similar computorized flight system.

    For the sake of public safety, we need to scuddle these systems and start fresh. Computer systems are prone to failure and they should not be running public transportation systems.

  3. NTSB has just issued the following:
    “Investigators conducted tests at the accident site last
    night with a similar train and found that when the train was
    stopped at the same location as the stopped struck train,
    the train control system lost detection of the test train. ”

    The full text of the release is here:
    http://www.ntsb.gov/pressrel/2009/090625.html

    This is the worst possible scenario, where the signal system fails to identify, recognize track occupancy and allows a following train to proceed at max speed, as if the track were clear.

    It is unlikely that this incident has anything to do with aging infrastructure, as all signal architecture, from the last century and earlier still in use today, to the most modern Communication Based Train Control are built around always detecting occupancy to maintain safe separation of trains.

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