Metro replacing subway equipment cited by NTSB as cause of Washington Metro crash

Eight passengers and a train operator were killed last summer when a Washington Metro train ran into a stopped train that was ahead of it on the tracks. The National Transportation Safety Board released its findings this week, saying that the crash was caused by “a failure of the track circuit modules that caused the automatic train control (ATC) system to lose detection of one train, allowing a second train to strike it from the rear.” Here’s the press release.

The NTSB’s synopsis of safety recommendations specifically stated this:

To Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, Metropolitan Atlanta Regional Transportation Authority, Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and Chicago Transit Authority:

Work with Alstom Signaling Inc. to establish periodic inspection and maintenance procedures to examine all GRS audio frequency track circuit modules to identify and remove from service any modules that exhibit pulse-type parasitic oscillation.

Here is Metro CEO Art Leahy’s response to the findings from his daily email to Metro staff:

Following up on yesterday’s release of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report on last summer’s fatal train collision in Washington, D.C. that was caused when the automatic signal system failed to detect a stopped train, the Associated Press (AP) has published an article. It summarizes the 40 conclusions and 34 recommendations in the NTSB report; MTA staff is analyzing those items in depth.

Today, our staff produced a comparison of MTA’s approach to the approach taken by Washington, D.C. before the accident. The NTSB is urging other properties that use similar train detection systems, including Los Angeles, to replace them, and in the meantime “to establish periodic inspection and maintenance procedures to examine all (similar) audio frequency track circuit modules to identify and remove from service any modules that exhibit pulse-type parasitic oscillation.” The reporter was told that only segment 1 for the subway (downtown LA) has a similar system and Metro already is in the process of replacing it at a cost of $1.3 million. This should be accomplished within the next 12 months. We’ve been in touch with NTSB and they approve our efforts.

Even before the Washington accident, Metro was in the process of replacing the equipment on segment 1 because the manufacturer, Alstom, said it was obsolete (technology had advanced and the manufacturer wouldn’t support the older system much longer). After the Washington accident, Alstom tested our system and it worked fine. We also did our own tests. And we also installed new software in rail control to detect any anomalies in track detection circuitry.

The NTSB also wrote this:

Contributing to the accident was the lack of a safety culture within WMATA; 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 statutory authority to provide federal safety oversight. Additionally, WMATA’s failure to replace or retrofit the 1000-series rail cars, after these cars were shown in previous accidents to exhibit poor crashworthiness, contributed to the severity of passenger injuries and the number of fatalities.