Metro's Continuing Problem With Train Controls
Should Metro, and some other transit systems, rethink the use of automatic train controls? That was an issue raised by Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.) during a congressional hearing Tuesday on the June 22 Metrorail crash.
But whether trains are run automatically or manually, they still need a protection system that prevents them from getting too close to each other. Right now, Metro doesn't have a system we can trust completely.
On the Red Line, the track circuit that flickered on June 22 and hid the location of the train that was struck continues to malfunction, even after critical equipment was replaced. Metro and the NTSB don't know why. Metro Board Chairman Jim Graham said during the congressional hearing that this mystery must be solved before normal operations can resume.
Until Metro is sure that all trains can be detected by its electronic protection system, it will send only one train at a time through the crash zone between Takoma and Fort Totten. Next time you're riding, look at a Metro map to see how long a stretch of track that is. It's one of the longest gaps between stations in the entire system. Trains would normally be able to reach 59 mph between them.
Sending only one train through at a time backs up the entire line. But if Metro operated as usual, it would risk duplicating the conditions that led to the June 22 crash.
All Lines Affected
Metro has tested all of its track circuits and found that only the mystery one between Takoma and Fort Totten is malfunctioning. But that doesn't mean train control issues are confined to the Red Line, or that they have been addressed by switching the trains from automatic to manual control.
As the National Transportation Safety Board has pointed out, the train protection system is the same, whether the trains are operating in automatic or manual. The system has the ability to maintain a safe distance between the trains -- stopping one train, if necessary -- even with a human at the train controls.
That's what made the NTSB's safety recommendation on Monday so urgent. If another track circuit were to malfunction, and a train became invisible to the electronic defenses, there's no more guarantee today than there was a month ago that the humans in the control room would detect that. And there is no real-time electronic backup. That's what the NTSB wants Metro -- and any other transit system that lacks one -- to acquire as quickly as possible.
But there is no quick fix, and no amount of instant money can create one. Only a few companies are capable of creating this fix, and Metro is just starting its talks with them.
July 15, 2009; 9:05 AM ET
Categories: Metro , Safety | Tags: Dr. Gridlock, Metrorail, Red Line crash
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