A faulty track circuit system was likely the cause of the June 22, 2009 rush hour Metro crash that claimed nine lives, injured several others and caused $25 million in damages, concluded federal officials Tuesday.
More than a year following the horrific crash on the Red Line, the National Transportation Safety Board reported the results of its investigation to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority board. During the lengthy meeting on July 27, the five-member board also engaged in a question-and-answer session with NSTB investigators that provided a clearer scenario of what led to the accident involving trains 112 and 214.
A video simulation of the crash, part of the investigators’ report, showed that Jeanice McMillan, who drove train 112, only had enough time to slow down by a few miles an hour before the point of impact. Meanwhile, the driver of 214, which had slowed to a stop, had no clue that the track circuit system had malfunctioned.
Board member Robert Sumwalt described the crash as a “technical accident” that most likely could have been avoided. “It was a classic example of an organizational accident with failures up and down the line – up to and including the WMATA board of directors,” he said.
According to the NTSB report, at the time of the crash, WMATA was performing two projects to upgrade the train control system on the Red Line: one for the installation of high current impedance bonds to handle the increased power needed for eight trains; and another to replace track circuits at the control room. Track work in the area of the accident had been completed by the day of the crash, but more upgrades to circuit components at the Fort Totten control room were to be made in the following days.
The operator of train 214, which was struck, said his trip was uneventful until he departed Takoma station. Train traffic was congested and train 214, operating in manual mode, followed behind train 110, while proceeding at a slow rate of speed.
The operator said that as his train traveled between the Takoma and Fort Totten stations, it lost its speed commands which caused the train to stop, according to the report.
The operator said that he attributed the loss of speed commands to the proximity of his train to train 110, which was at the Fort Totten station platform at the time.
Meanwhile, train 112 , the striking vehicle, was traveling behind train 214 and was operating in automatic mode. As such, the automatic train control system should have been controlling the movement of train 112 by automatically maintaining a safe distance from the train ahead. However, there was a problem with the track circuit, which caused the system to lose detection of train 214. In effect, the system viewed the part of the track occupied by train 214 as unoccupied.
As a result, the system issued speed commands to train 112, which traveled forward until it collided with the standing train 214.
“Once the trains collided there was significant loss of occupant survival space on train 112,” according to the report.
Board member Mark Rosekind praised NTSB’s investigation, saying an excellent job had been done in its findings. He said there was no way in the few weeks or months following the crash that its cause could have been adequately determined.
While WMATA Chairman Deborah Hersman agreed, she noted that Metro had been plagued with systemic problems long before the crash. “As our report shows, this was not the first time Metro’s safety system was compromised,” Hersman said.
“Because the necessary preventive measures were not taken, the only question was when would Metro have another accident, and of what magnitude,” she said, alluding to previous mishaps in which other employees have lost their lives.
Metro currently faces four open NTSB investigations –the largest number for any other transit organization in NTSB’s 42-year history.
Since the crash, Metro’s Board of Directors has announced it has begun putting aside $30 million over the next three years to begin work on recommendations resulting from NTSB’s report.
Also, according to a statement Metro released earlier this week, over the last year the system has taken proactive steps to make changes to its train control system, upgrade its infrastructure, expand safety training, rebuild its safety department and make extensive changes internally to change the Metro safety culture.