Metro Fatalities Still Under Investigation

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The series of fatalities and injuries that have occurred over the past year on the mass transit system in Washington have distinguished the system as the region’s worst, according to federal records.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which investigates fatal and severe accidents, reported recently that three of its eight ongoing transit investigations involve fatal Metro incidents. Two are focused on the deaths of two people in late January and this past June NTSB investigated a derailment on the Red Line in the northeastern part of the District. Nine people were killed in that incident and about 70 others were injured, resulting in that crash being the worst in Metro’s 33-year history.

“I don’t know what the statistics are nationally for transportation agencies but we take every fatality very seriously,” said Metro spokeswoman Angela Gates. “Obviously, we never want to have a fatality in our system and we’re really doing everything we can to investigate these incidents.”

But Gates was just as quick to note that the Metro system is an aging one, further hampered with a problematic infrastructure and lack of funding.

On the other hand, she said the June crash and the two January deaths were separate incidents which had no bearing on each other.

“They’re two different things so you have to look at them as such,” Gates said, adding that overall, public transportation is still a safe mode of mobility compared to driving and flying.

According to the NTSB, “anomalies” in a 740-foot-long circuit, a key component of the electric control system, were found near the crash site. However, the fatalities associated with that and other crashes, along with budget woes, have pressured Metro General Manager John Catoe into resigning in April.

Peter Rogoff, an official with the Federal Transit Administration, said in a late January statement that WMATA accounts for 42 percent of all track worker fatalities that have occurred in the nation since 2002. He said, however, that the fatalities have been a systemic problem for WMATA that needs to be addressed immediately.

Rogoff has also called on the Congress to pass a transit safety reform bill that would also give FTA the leeway to address problems head on. In September, the NTSB – which had previously chastised the Metro system over its safety performances – issued nine recommendations that were spawned by the latest derailment. Among them were that in accordance with design tolerances, WMATA would develop a program to determine the performance of train control systems and their electronic components – and that the FTA and the Federal Railroad Administration work with their signal manufacturers to eliminated adverse conditions that could affect performance.

In a report surrounding its ongoing investigation into the summer derailment, NTSB said last week that a hearing in the matter is scheduled for Feb. 23-25 in the city. The meetings, which will include the testimony of several witnesses to the crash, will focus not only on WMATA’s investigation, but also on the adequacy of state and federal oversight of rail transit systems. Information gleaned from the gatherings – including an update from Metro surrounding its safety performances since June – will be used in a final NTSB report.