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NTSB Issues New Safety Advisory to Metro

The National Transportation Safety Board has issued nine new safety recommendations to Metro and its circuit manufacturer as part of its investigation into the June 22 crash on the Red Line.

The recommendations address concerns about the safety of train control systems, such as Metro's, that use audio frequencies to detect and report the presence in trains. The NTSB considers six of the recommendations urgent.

In its statement today, the NTSB again notes that it has not determined the cause of the crash. But it says that during the investigation, investigators discovered that a failure occurred in which a false signal generated by a track circuit module transmitter mimicked a valid signal and bypassed the rails via an unintended path.

As a result, the stopped train was not detected in the track circuit where the following train crashed into it.

The NTSB wants Metro and Alstom Signaling Inc., the manufacturer of the track circuit modules in the area where the crash occurred, to examine the track circuits and work together to eliminate conditions that could affect their safety. It also urged the transit authority to develop a program to regularly determine that the electronics are working right.

The investigators also are concerned about other rail systems using comparable technology, so the NTSB recommended that the Federal Transit Administration and the
Federal Railroad Administration advise all rail transit operators and railroads that use audio frequency track circuits about these findings.

In the statement, NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said: " ... our findings so far indicate a pressing need to issue these recommendations to immediately address safety glitches we have found that could lead to another tragic accident on WMATA or another transit or rail system."

[7:46 p.m. update]
Metro General Manager John B. Catoe said in a statement tonight: "The NTSB has identified a symptom of the problem with the track circuit, but not a root cause or a solution. We are doing everything we can to make our rail system as safe as possible."

He said Metro already has begun work to correct the problem of false signals. "We will continue to cooperate with the NTSB and respond quickly in hope that they can identify a root cause or causes that will allow us to put steps in place to prevent this from happening again," Catoe said in the statement.

Previous recommendations from the NTSB have focused on issues concerning the track circuits. During the summer, Metro said it was raising its standards for acceptable performance of track circuits. That resulted in periodic delays for riders when track circuits were taken out of service and tested. Metro maintains a list of those circuit checks here.

In August, Metro began a project to completely replace the track circuits in the crash zone between Takoma and Fort Totten stations, and train travel is largely back to normal in that area.

All trains continue to be under the control of their operators rather than the automated train control system, as has been the case since the crash.

Here's a link to the letter that the NTSB sent to Metro.

Here's a copy of the letter sent to Alstom.

This letter was sent to the FTA, and this one went to the FRA.

By Robert Thomson  |  September 22, 2009; 4:51 PM ET
Categories:  Metro , Safety  | Tags: Dr. Gridlock, Metrorail, Red Line crash  
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The NTSB found that the cause of the June 22 Metro crash was faulty electronics: "A spurious...signal was being the track circuit module transmitter. This spurious signal...was...sensed by the module receiver as a valid track circuit signal." The result of the failure was that the oncoming Red Line train was not warned of the stopped train ahead of it.

The NTSB recommends: "Develop a program to periodically determine that electronic components in your train control system are performing within design tolerances." However, once a critical failure occurs, it can cause a crash within seconds to minutes. Only sophisticated, fully independent and continuous monitoring can provide warnings in time to stop crashes.

Comparable to the high cost of an effective monitoring system is to reinforce and eventually replace the track circuits, a century-old technology, with communications-based train control (CBTC). In addition to more reliable safety assurance, CTBC can provide more efficient dispatching, increasing the practical capacity of overstressed track segments such as Potomac River crossings.

Posted by: AppDev | September 22, 2009 7:27 PM | Report abuse

True to form, GM Catoe believes some external party is holding Metro back from making things acceptably safe. It's another "whodunnit?" Is the Metro Board 100% behind this view and this official?

Posted by: axolotl | September 22, 2009 8:38 PM | Report abuse

I observe ridiculously bad management daily.

The point must be get everyone off the system so corruption can continue unimpeded.

Posted by: inono | September 22, 2009 8:58 PM | Report abuse

At times, it is hard to tell who the enemies are. Alerting police and the FBI to a terroristic plot to murder children and women, and to acts of terrorism (food tainting) taking place at a supermarket catering to thousands of people, put me at odds with them following their demands for money ($900) ‘in order (for them) to investigate”. As alert and as vigilant as I am, since that incident with “those in authorities”, especially when I read lately as to how the mob “buys” police officers/detectives… etc, one doesn’t know whom to trust anymore, and people may lose their lives.

Posted by: Shanan1 | September 22, 2009 9:03 PM | Report abuse

Force Metro management to take the trains, that should help.

Posted by: hairguy01 | September 22, 2009 9:05 PM | Report abuse

A simple CB radio shared by train drivers could have prevented the most recent wreck. If I can buy a Mercedes car with a radar-based auto-braking system, why can't we get a version for trains?

Posted by: isenberg888 | September 22, 2009 11:18 PM | Report abuse

As a daily red line rider, my experience is that train travel is not yet "back to normal." Unless slowdowns, single-tracking, mysterious stops and endless signal work are now considered the new normal.

Posted by: 60bike | September 22, 2009 11:25 PM | Report abuse

Does anyone really believe in Metro when it can't even keep it elevators and escalators working?

Now, three months after the tragic crash, Metro still doesn't know why its "fail safe" system failed.

This isn't rocket science.

Metro is broken.

Throwing more money down this rat hole isn't the solution.

All of its management and so-called safety officers must go.

Condemn and close this death-trap until all suspected safety issues have been thoroughly investigated and resolved by a competent independent authority.

Posted by: Geokalish | September 23, 2009 6:43 AM | Report abuse

I have to ask. Why do people still ride Metro? Long before the tragedy, I already had problems with the system (overcrowding, poor customer service, train delays, etc, etc, etc), but when those 9 people died in June that was IT for me. not cite statistics about how many people die on planes and automobiles. It's a BORING response. I know accidents can happen anywhere, but NEGLIGENCE is something different. Metro has been NEGLIGENT. That's a difference. Why don't people get that? I have not been on Metro since June 18, 2009. And at this time, I have NO plans to return.

Posted by: mrmrsmartin | September 23, 2009 9:49 AM | Report abuse

Well, I ride Metro because I've got to get from Montgomery Village to Baltimore for college classes, and I don't own a car. Of course, that ride from Shady Grove to Union Station is a load of crap on Metro's part. Their official schedule says it will take 38 minutes. Do you know the last time it took 38 minutes? Neither do I. It takes no less than 50 minutes. Where's that extra 12? Who knows. Metro acts as if riding their trains is a privilege, and we should all just be happy that we have the opportunity. Nope, not so much.

Posted by: pikamander007 | September 23, 2009 11:56 AM | Report abuse

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