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Congressional Committee Examines Metro Crash

Here are some highlights of the hearing that began at 2:15 and ended at 5:34 p.m. The most recent information is at the top of the entry:

The second panel of witnesses is beginning it's opening statements at 3:55 p.m, which will be followed by questions from the members of Congress. The witnesses are: DC Council member Jim Graham, chairman of the Metro board; John B. Catoe Jr., Metro general manager; Deborah A. P. Hersman, member, National Transportation Safety Board; Eric Madison, Chairman, Tri-State Oversight Committee; Peter M. Rogoff Administrator, Federal Transit Administration.

Graham, at 3:58 p.m.: Metro is providing emergency relief to the victims of the crash. "We believe in our management," he adds. "We believe our system is safe." Action will be take to remedy and address the problems that the investigation reveals.

But to meet pressing infrastructure needs, we need real action from the federal government, he says. Graham says active assistance of President Obama is necessary to respond to the Metro system's needs stemming from this accident.

Catoe, at 4:02 p.m.: We're working with the NTSB to provide support for their investigation, on which the NTSB takes lead.

"Safety is at the foundation of what we do at Metro," he says. Steps that Metro has taken:
All trains operating manually, "To ensure the integrity of the system." After discovery of faulty track circuit in crash zone, all track circuits in system were inspected. Also, Metro has arranged for independent review by outside transit signal experts.

While they are safe to operate, the oldest cars in the system have been placed in the middle of the trains, he says.

Metro already has begun contacting vendors who could provide the backup system urged yesterday by NTSB. It requires a specialized development for the Metro system, but the resources would be dedicated to that. Metro will meet tomorrow with vendors.

Can't return to normal operations on the Red Line till investigation is completed. This is an inconvenience to riders, he acknowledges.

Hersman, at 4:08 p.m.: Since 1982, she says, NTSB has investigated seven Metro accidents. Then she goes on to describe basic details of the June 22 crash and the NTSB's response.

The striking train's passengers said there was an announcement of a delay, followed by a restart of the train and then the crash. There was no communication between the train operators and the train controllers. Marks consistent with heavy braking along the tracks.

The system is designed to prevent collisions whether the trains are operating in automatic or manual. Post accident testing shows that the track circuit at the location intermittently failed to detect a train. The striking train did not receive automatic instructions to slow.

Investigators are continuing to examine the train control system. They also will be doing some sight distance tests this weekend in the crash zone.

Two urgent safety recommendations yesterday to Metro and to Federal Transit Administration. Metro needs a system to detect a failure of the main system that protects trains. FTA needs to advise other transit systems that if they lack such a backup system, they need to have one.

Rogoff, testifying at 4:15 p.m.: Stresses the safety of transit over auto travel. The states are expected to establish safety systems for transit, he notes. The FTA is prohibited by law from setting mandatory national standards. He stresses this limited role assigned to the federal government.

This is unacceptable and the administration expects to propose oversight reforms, he says. But we don't know the cause of the accident. Only the NTSB investigation will determine that, he says.

Madison, at 4:20 p.m.: The oversight committee, a regional panel, has limited regulatory authority, he says.

Graham, answering questions at 4:26 p.m.: The $177 million Red Line rehab has not been given final approval. [It comes before the board on Thursday.] The Metro board is well aware that there may be additional demands for spending as a result of the crash.

Catoe, answer question about priorities: First committment in spending is to respond to the crash. Next priority, replace the 1000 Series cars [the oldest in the fleet]. Next, urgent need to maintain infrastructure in state of good repair.

Rogoff, answering questions about priorities: Highest priority of FTA is to get a regulatory reform plan before Congress. About Metro, don't prejudge the results of the investigation. Rail cars, while important, are the last line of defense in preventing an accident. There's not going to be a way of protecting all passengers in a crash at 59 mph, the top speed between Takoma and Fort Totten. Don't let the crash happen in the first place.

Hersman: NTSB's first priority is to get to the bottom of what happen in this crash, then make recommendations. NTSB now has 11 open recommendations to Metro. Pleased with the response to yesterday's recommendation.

Graham: On June 17, the signal device that has become the focus of suspicion was replaced in the course of routine maintenance. There was no indication of a problem with it. Saw on re-examination that there was a problem with the fluttering of the signal.

The device was replaced after the accident, and the fluttering continued. There's a mystery about what is wrong. It's very important to continue the safety measures implemented since the crash until that mystery is solved.

Catoe, responding to questions at 4:37 p.m.: Our testing for 30 years served us well. This was not a new type of device [the train control device that was found to be flickering].

Hersman, responding to questions at 4:40 p.m. from DC Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton about why there was no NTSB recommendation to place the older, 1000 Series cars in the middle of the trains, so the newer cars would act as a buffer: The challenge is that we don't have the engineering data to know the effect of this placement.

The safety board has not taken a position on whether putting the cars in the center was in the best interests of safety.

Norton interjects: It's real easy to say, spend a billion dollars to replace the cars. The public needs to know, short of spending money, do the experts have a response that will increase our feeling of safety? Could you [Hersman] consider offering recommendations short of spending all that money?

Norton is pressing: You had no hesitation to tell Metro to change the cars. You didn't mince words on that. We're trying to learn, she says, whether there is anybody interested in doing what seemed to us to be minimally neccessary: If you don't have the money, what interim steps can be taken. Are you [Hersman] prepared to look into interim steps?

Hersman: Yes.

Norton to Rogoff: You say FTA prevented by law from requiring inspections of transit systems. What law prevents you from acting and do you believe that there's an obligation on the part of federal authorities to adopt minimum standards. Would that not be a reasonable thing for Congress to do?

Rogoff: Reads the statute that limits the US DOT from setting transit rules.

Catoe, at 5:15 p.m., responding to a question about the replacement work on the circuit: Records indicate it was working properly after the replacement part was put in on June 17. After the crash, a test showed the circuit had been fluttering over a period of time up to and after the crash.

Hersman, responding to questions at 5:21 p.m.: There are still intermittent failures of the problem circuit between Takoma and Fort Totten.

Witnesses get a chance to add final comments:

Graham: We need to have a preliminary report from NTSB. If it doesn't pinpoint the cause of the accident, it should at least outline the immediate challenges, he says. If we could just get the public to understand just what we're wrestling with at the moment, it would help riders understand some of the current procedures they're seeing.

Catoe: We have to plan for the maintenance of the lines into the future. If oversight is focused on the safety of the system, then I welcome that.

Hersman: I will take the concerns raised by Congressman Norton and Chairman Graham and will take them to heart. We do make recommendations, and we don't have to pay for them, so I do recognize the frustration, she says. We're the conscience and the compass of the transportation agencies.

For Metro, we will do as we did yesterday and issue recommendations for what we think needs to be done in a timely fashion.

-------
This is from the first panel of witnesses and the members of Congress on the subcommittee:

DC Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, at 3:47 p.m., asks union leader Jackie Jeter about whether there's enough activity to engage train operators and keep them alert. Yes, Jeter responds. She notes that operators need to make announcements and monitor and respond to the radio.

Jeter says, in response to another question, that Metro missed part of the longterm situation that led to the accident. She refers to the replacement of the train detection and control device in the days before the crash.

----
Patrick Tuite, who was aboard the second car in the train that struck the other on June 22, testifying at 3:35 p.m.: He was late reaching the hearing, he says, because for the first time since the accident he took the Red Line. The trip began at 12:37 and ended at 2:55 p.m.

He describes the train crash: Operator told us to expect a delay. Train came to a stop. He closed eyes and relaxed. Train began to move again. He put his paper down. We got to a normal cruising speed. He heard a screeching noise. A shuttering came through the car, followed by one of the loudest bangs he ever heard. he hit the seat in front of him. Remembers being on the floor of the car, with a lot of dust.

No noise. Sunlight was coming through but it was difficult to make out what was going on. Woman pulled emergency lever to open doors, but they didn't open at first. They did get the doors open and jumped down. He looked to left and saw that the first car of train was in the air. He could see debris on the ground and in the nearby fencing.

They moved toward the back of the train. They helped people off the train. He got back onto the train to help people who were trying to open the door that connects the second car to the first car. The roof of the car "had dimpled like a soda can." That prevented the door in the second car from opening enough to allow anyone in the first car to exit.

He describes the difficulties first responders had in reaching the scene north of Fort Totten Station.

-----
Union president Jackie Jeter, at 3:29 p.m., under questioning by Rep. Brian Bilbray: Automatic control is the way to go. The system just runs better. (She's a former train operator.)

Bilbray is concerned about the effect of the automatic train control system on the human being in the cab. Does it lull the human operator? He suggests that we should rethink whether the human can respond in a timely manner to a crisis when a system is under automatic control. He says we may need to go back and look at the human factor. We're always studying the machines, he says.

Jeter: When you operate for eight hours manually, you also run the risk of someone getting tired. She advises operators to stand up and move around when they feel themselves getting tired. Being alert is your job, she says.

3:32 p.m.: Risks of automation? Make sure employees are trained in using the equipment, make sure equipment is up to date, and don't expect it to deliver more than it can deliver, responds witness William Millar, president of public transportation association.

DC Del Eleanor Holmes Norton, asking questions, 3:13 p.m. of Tom Davis: Shouldn't federal government enforce standards on transit systems, she asks. Sure, he says, but the only source of funding for new rail cars at present is the federal New Starts program, he responds. (That's a relatively small source of funding not available to finance existing rail lines.)

Earlier, responding to other questions: William Millar, Jackie Jeter and Tom Davis all say the number one thing they want Congress to do is provide additional funding. Davis, under questioning by Rep. Jerry Connolly, notes that one of the prime jobs of the Metro system is to move federal workers. And another top job is to transport visitors to the nation's capital.

Former congressman Tom Davis is asked by ranking GOP member Jason Chaffetz if funding alone will solve problems of Metro. No, says Davis. (That's one reason the federal legislation to create a steady, reliable source of funding for Metro requires an inspector general, he says.)

Current funding system is a grab bag, he says. Metro needs $6 billion. The current legislation addresses half of that.

Chaffetz also asks Jeter about safety: We do have employees apprehensive about whether this [crash] will happen again, she says.

Subcommittee Chairman Stephen Lynch, asking questions of first witness panel, 2:57 p.m.: Speaking to union local president Jackie Jeter, he's going over the difference between automatic and manual train controls, in connection with the June 22 crash and the role of the train control system.

Jeter, a former train operator, responding: Under no circumstances, whether the train was in manual or automatic, should this crash have happened. Safeguards are in place to prevent a crash. Train operators know when it's best to move from automatic to manual. "I believe in the system. I believe in it wholeheartedly." She believes it's a safe system, she says.

William Millar, President, American Public Transportation Association, third witness, 250 p.m.: You're 29 times safer in a transit vehicle such as Metro operates rather than in a car, he says. The public's trust in public transportation is not misplaced. But nothing is infallible.

Jackie Jeter, president of the union local that represents Metro train and bus operators, second witness, 2:45 p.m.: Urges swift corrective actions following June 22 crash. "We cannot afford to spend time on expensive studies and multiple meetings." But says premature to publicly conjecture about the causes of the crash. She urges NTSB to be open and transparent about the investigation.

There were troubling patterns to Metro's responses to previous NTSB investigations. She notes NTSB recommendation for safety monitoring systems in all Metrorail cars. Also, recommendation that Metro provide better passenger protection in older rail cars (the 1000 Series rail cars). It is unfortunate, she says, that NTSB is limited to making recommendations.

Aging infrastructure: "We need dollars," she says.

Former congressman Tom Davis, first witness, 2:40 p.m.: Metro can't meet its financing needs within the existing system of funding. Metro suffers as local governments cut their budgets. (Davis was prime mover behind the federal effort to get Metro a constant, reliable source of funding, and that's what he's focusing on in his testimony.)

Under the Davis plan, there would be federal representation on the Metro board, which he says is important, because it will limit the power of the jurisdictional interests. There will be members to represent all people's interests.

National Transportation Safety Board has identified changes that must be made right away, he notes. Hopes that stimulus money may be available for that purpose.

Opening statements, 2:36 p.m.: Committee members are concerned not only with the crash itself, but also with the safety of transit systems across the country that use automatic train controls. Some are talking about transportation funds that can be used to ensure that all transit systems are safe and reliable.

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, subcommittee member, 2:25 p.m.: She notes that the investigation is not complete. In fact, it may take a year. She says she continues to believe the transit system is safe. However, the public is not fully aware of what the congressional subcommittee knows about the system's safety and they seek reassurance about the safety of their daily trips.

Today's hearing, she says, will make public all that is known now, allowing the public to separate urban legend from authoritative testimony.

By Robert Thomson  |  July 14, 2009; 2:20 PM ET
Categories:  Metro , Safety  | Tags: Congress oversight, Dr. Gridlock, Metrorail, Red Line crash  
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Next: Metro's Continuing Problem With Train Controls

Comments

Ask Catoe for his resignation!

Posted by: anarcho-liberal-tarian | July 14, 2009 2:38 PM | Report abuse

Catoe needs to go pronto!

Posted by: Axel2 | July 14, 2009 3:14 PM | Report abuse

Look, I'm frustrated by the Metro delays on the Red Line, too, but I have a hard time believing that it took Tuite more than two hours to get to Capitol Hill on the Metro. Was there some problem earlier today in addition to the Takoma situation?

Posted by: TheFingerman | July 14, 2009 3:46 PM | Report abuse

"Look, I'm frustrated by the Metro delays on the Red Line, too, but I have a hard time believing that it took Tuite more than two hours to get to Capitol Hill on the Metro. Was there some problem earlier today in addition to the Takoma situation?"

I would say he must have been and still is freaked. Perhaps he got off each train at each stop or something. Then he'd know what the gap was between the train ahead of him station to station. Perhaps it took him two hours to get on that first train. Anyhow, I agree with you, whatever delay there was he likely created it himself. I do want to check the archived service reports tomorrow to see if there was any reason for that delay.

http://www.wmata.com/rail/disruption_reports/archived_service_reports.cfm

Posted by: prokaryote | July 14, 2009 5:02 PM | Report abuse

It's clear that there were only TWO people at that hearing who actually do ride Metro, the passenger and Jackie Jeter. Well, three if you count Dr. Gridlock. Holmes has admitted that she never rides Metro and Graham apparently took his first Metro ride on a Circulator bus this week.

This is why Metro is in such bad shape: the people who made the decisions about funding aren't consumers of the product. Do you think that if Holmes had to commute to Capitol Hill every day, including hiking up and down some of the out of orde esclataors, that Metro would be as bad as it was, even BEFORE the accident? What if Graham had been accosted on the Red line at Tenleytown by the rowdy teenagers from Wilson High? No way.

Anybody with ANY decision-making authority over Metro should be REQUIRED to commute to and from work using Metrorail or Metrobus. Let them suffer the way the daily commuters do, then we'll see some changes.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | July 15, 2009 8:52 AM | Report abuse

Norton is a disgrace. Metro is responsible for blowing off the NTSB's recommendations - after all, they plead "no money" after the fact, but they apparently have plenty to build a Silver Line and refurbish the stations on the Red Line and pay executives big salaries - and she badgers DEBBIE HERSMAN for why more wasn't done.

Posted by: DellC | July 15, 2009 12:27 PM | Report abuse

This is not Catoes fault, it is the fault of the federal government for not appropriately funding the necessary safety revisions to this tri-state metro system, as per NTSB.

These revisions were recommended when the previous D.C. City Administrator, now Obama Appointee, Dan Tangherlini, was the interim General Manager at Metro.

Catoe, like Obama, inherited this mess.

Posted by: concernedaboutdc | July 15, 2009 12:58 PM | Report abuse

I have to reply to the comments posted by Prokaryote and the Fingerman. I left my home in Kensington at 12:37. I drove to get my wife from Holy Cross Hospital. She then dropped me off at the Forest Glen Metro stop. That was just after 1:00 pm. When I tried to enter the station using my Smartrip card it failed because I had never used it to exit a station after June 22. A Metro agent helped me with my card. However, I missed the next Shady Grove train. The elevator doors at Forest Glen would not close. Again, check these facts with the agents working at that station.
Once I made it to the platform using another elevator I had to wait approximately 10-15 minutes for the next train.

Once I was on the train we had to deal with multiple delays. It took over an hour to go from Forest Glen to Fort Totten. I called Robert White, an assistant to Eleanor Holmes Norton to explain the delay. You can check his records for the exact time.

I switched to the Green Line and traveled to L'Enfant Plaza,but I had to wait 6 minutes for the next train. I then had to wait another 8-10 minutes to get a train from L'Enfant Plaza to Capitol South. I exited that station at 2:55

I was not freaked out. Frustrated, yes. Freaked out, no. Check your facts before you make that kind of claim and feel free to cross-check the times via my Smartrip card.

When I say that I do not trust Metro understand that in actuality I do not trust specific groups that claim they will do what they can to insure the safety of its riders. Catoe, Norton, and other officials I am sure will want to do the right thing, but do they and other responsible parties have the ability to create a dedicated source of funding, and will they continue to provide oversight that will maintain a safe and efficient transit system even one year from now? I rely on Metro, I will use it, but I will not ride in the front car again.

Posted by: tuite | July 15, 2009 3:06 PM | Report abuse

Tuite, you probably would have saved yourself a lot of time if you had just taken the red line train to Union Station and walked to the Capitol from there, rather than wasting all that time on transfers to other lines. The wait times you describe are pretty standard for midday service on the metro (perhaps something you weren't planning for if you only take metro during rush hour).

I can understand bailing on the redline if the train took that long to get between Forest Glen and Fort Totten but you should have just gotten off at Archives/Navy Memorial on the Green line and walked to the Capitol from there. Again, you would have saved yourself time.

I've never understood why people will go multiple stops out of their way just to get 3 blocks closer. It's was a nice day too. Walk a little!

Posted by: UMDTerpsGirl | July 15, 2009 5:29 PM | Report abuse

Tuite:

Thanks for the explanation. I was curious why it took that long, and you've answered the question. I live on the other side of the Red Line--where there are delays but I had no idea it was so bad on the other side. If it takes an hour to get from Forest Glen to Fort Totten--which probably should take, what 10 minutes?--then Metro is basically useless.

I can understand your lack of trust in Metro. I agree with one of the other posters earlier who mentioned that too many of those who make decisions about Metro don't ride it enough to really know what is going on. Some of the decisions made -- or not made -- consistently amaze me because it's obvious the people making them have no idea what it's like to ride the system on a daily basis. But it doesn't seem like anything ever changes.

Posted by: TheFingerman | July 15, 2009 6:14 PM | Report abuse

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