Washington DC Metro Accident Caused by Negligent Safety Oversight

Federal investigators say that negligent safety attitudes and a defective electronic circuit caused last year’s Washington, D.C. metro crash, which killed nine people.

On Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) announced that it has completed the investigation into the collision between two Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) trains. It has cited the WMATA for a failure of track circuit modules and a failure to use a verification test that would have detected the failed circuit and prevented the metro subway accident.

The DC Metro crash occurred on June 22, 2009, when a train on the Metro’s Red Line slammed in to the back of another subway train shortly after 5 p.m., just outside of the Fort Totten Station. The rear train was travelling fast enough that the front car was propelled into the air and crashed onto the back of the front train. Many people were ejected from the rear train upon impact.

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Eight passengers and the train’s operator, Jeanice McMillan, were killed in the crash. The train was under computer control at the time and McMillan attempted to use the emergency brake to prevent the crash.

The NTSB determined that a lack of a safety culture in the WMATA was a major factor in the crash. The report also cites ineffective safety oversight by the WMATA Board of Directors and the Tri-State Oversight Committee (TOC), and the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) lack of authority to provide oversight.

According to NTSB’s findings, failed track circuit modules caused the automatic train control (ATC) to lose detection of train 214 at about 5 p.m. on June 22, 2009, near Fort Totten station. That allowed train 112, operated by McMillan, to strike the train from the rear. The rear car of train 214 telescoped about 63 feet into the lead car of McMillan’s train. McMillan was stationed at the very front of the lead car. All of the fatalities involved passengers onboard McMillan’s train.

The failed circuit was part of the Red Line’s crash avoidance system. A circuit in the crash area began intermittently losing its ability to detect trains after the device was replaced, but the problem was not discovered until after the accident. The device is called a Wee-Z bond, and helps maintain a safe distance between trains. It would occasionally lose its ability to detect trains, but officials say the malfunctions happened so quickly and briefly that controllers would not have detected it in the Metro operations center.

WMATA failed to ensure that a verification test developed in 2005 was used across the entire Metro system. Had the verification test been used the circuit failure would have been detected and lives would have been saved. NTSB officials said.

In addition to the other factors of the crash, investigators said that WMATA failed to replace or retrofit its 1000-series rail cars, despite knowing they rated poorly in crashworthiness. Investigators said this contributed to injuries and fatalities aboard the trains.

“The layers of safety deficiencies uncovered during the course of this investigation are troubling and reveal a systemic breakdown of safety management at all levels,” said NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman. “Our hope is that the lessons learned from this accident will be not only a catalyst for change at WMATA, but also the cornerstone of a greater effort to establish a federal role in oversight and safety standards for rail transit systems across the nation.”

A number of Washington DC Metro accident injury and wrongful death lawsuits have been filed against WMATA and other parties as a result of the crash.

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