Are Metro's safety moves working?
Metro board members Peter Benjamin of Maryland and Chris Zimmerman of Virginia asked this question in a variety of ways during a board committee meeting Thursday: Is it time to review some of the decisions about Metrorail operations made after the June 22 Red Line crash?
In doing so, they were channeling the frustrations of their fellow transit users.
In the aftermath of the crash, Metro took several safety steps that affect every single ride: The operators drive the trains and they pull them to the front of the station platform before opening the doors. No train operates with the oldest, least crash-worthy, cars at the front or back. To accomplish those reconfigurations, the old cars have been spread out across the system and placed in the middle of trains.
We know those steps contribute to a less-pleasant experience in train riding. Train operations are less efficient under manual control, so trips take longer. There's a lot of jerky stopping when trains reach the platforms. In some cases -- particularly on the Red Line platform at Gallery Place -- having six-car trains stop at the front of the platforms has created an extra difficulty for passengers in reaching the trains, so loading and unloading is slower. See previous post about on-time performance.
"We made a series of decisions since June associated with manual operation and consist [the makeup of the trains] that are having a substantial impact on our riders," Benjamin said. What was reasonable in the immediate aftermath of the accident might need some review eight months later, he added.
Aside from assessing the long-term impact of the changes on riders' trips, Zimmerman wondered whether some efforts to increase safety might carry their own risks. He began asking questions about the derailment at Farragut North on Friday.
Would the train have gone through a red light -- a stop light -- if it had been under automatic control rather than manual control? he asked.
Metro's top managers were extremely reluctant to answer any questions about the derailment in public, because the National Transportation Safety Board doesn't like other officials to talk about details of its investigations and probably would kick Metro out of the probe.
But General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. did answer from "a theoretical, operational standpoint." He said that automatic train controls are designed to block a train from going through a stop signal.
If you are in automatic train control," he said, "then that system would have kicked in and taken action by speed commands to prevent the train from moving forward."
Zimmerman showed great frustration about Metro's inability to tell riders exactly what went wrong last Friday. If riders don't know what happened and what Metro can do to make sure it doesn't happen again, why should they be convinced the train system is safe?
Catoe assured the board and the public that Metro was not waiting on the National Transportation Safety Board. Regarding the June 22 crash, he said: "We're taking steps on everything we know that could possibly be involved in this accident."
Getting back to the derailment, Zimmerman again sought clarification on whether we need to worry about people or machines or both. "Do we have a training failure?" he asked. "The nature of the problem leads to a different course of action. Now, we're in a position of not being able to tell anyone ... I'm not sure how we're in a position to restore confidence."
"I don't like the rules any more than you do," Catoe responded. "I don't like the restriction that we can't communicate. That's federal regulations." But he added, "I can assure the public that what we know, we have taken action on."
February 18, 2010; 3:41 PM ET
Categories: Metro , Safety , transit | Tags: Dr. Gridlock, metrorail
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