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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."

By Robert Thomson  |  February 18, 2010; 3:41 PM ET
Categories:  Metro , Safety , transit  | Tags: Dr. Gridlock, metrorail  
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Red line trains pulling to the front of the platform at Gallery Place and Union Station is a failure.

Operating with older cars in the middle was not proven to improve safety. Fail.

Operating under manual control, with the operators still relying upon the automatic train control system to tell them if there is a train ahead. Fail. If anything, I would argue that it makes the system less safe. If the ATC system senses a train ahead, it has to tell the operator who has to manually slow the train, instead of having the ATC automatically stop the train. The reaction time kills any benefit of manual control under those circumstances.

Posted by: thetan | February 18, 2010 4:34 PM | Report abuse

How exactly would operating with older cars in the middle make things worse?

Posted by: member5 | February 18, 2010 5:07 PM | Report abuse

While the trains are able to be operated in mixed consists, acceleration, braking, and other trainline systems work far better when the trains operate in solid consists.

Posted by: FHMetro | February 18, 2010 5:37 PM | Report abuse

Member5...if you look back at pictures of the crash in the rail yard a few months ago the 1000 series fared no better in the middle of a consist than at the front or end of a consist. There is no point in placing them there (aside from being a lovely PR move) if they are just going to cause problems and incompatibilities.

Posted by: Razor04 | February 18, 2010 7:15 PM | Report abuse

I have a recommendation: turn national health care and stimulus spending over to Metro. That way, we can consolidate glaring cases of mismanagement in one place.

Also, put Mayor Fenty in charge. He and Pres. Obama could perform as a tag team, doing press conferences on a one hour on, one hour off schedule.

Posted by: JohnRDC | February 18, 2010 9:21 PM | Report abuse

Uh, JohnRDC, Americans have already said they don't want death squads as part of healtcare....

Posted by: thetan | February 19, 2010 11:04 AM | Report abuse

In the passenger train collision, only the first car was dramatically damaged. Are you saying that if that car had been in the middle, only the middle of the train would have telescoped? I haven't seen rail yard pictures but it is hard to believe.

Posted by: member5 | February 19, 2010 2:29 PM | Report abuse

Would the Union Station-Gallery Place rush hour crush be reduced if Shady Grove-bound Red Line trains alternately avoided opening their doors at those stations? It may allow the stations to clear out before dumping more passengers into them.

Posted by: glazerandfamily | February 21, 2010 8:16 AM | Report abuse

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