Metro Was Warned Over Aging Fleet

Transportation safety authorities say they had warned Washington's Metro system to upgrade its old subway cars, but the transit system did not do so. The age of the equipment is one aspect of the investigation into Monday's crash in which one train smashed into the rear of another stationary train. At least nine people were killed.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

To other news in Washington D.C. now, federal investigators have started to collect evidence in yesterday's fatal metro crash. The death toll now stands at nine, with more than 75 injured. Officials with the National Transportation Safety Board say they raised concerns three years ago with metro rail. They were worried about the safety of D.C.'s older train cars. One of those cars was involved in the crash.

NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER: The accident occurred during the evening rush hour, when trains can sometime get backed up waiting to enter a station. That's what happened to one train yesterday, which was sitting on the tracks when another came crashing in from behind, sending part of the second train up over the first. Debbie Hersman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the question now is why? She said investigators are looking at many factors.

Ms. DEBBIE HERSMAN (National Transportation Safety Board): They're going to be looking at any communication that might have been going on between the control center and the operators. And they're going to be looking at the automatic train operation versus the manual operation to determine what mode the train was at the time of the collision and if there had been any instructions to the operator.

FESSLER: D.C.'s metro rail generally runs automatically at rush hour, with a computerized system that's supposed to prevent from getting too close. But operators can also take control if something goes wrong. Hersman said investigators have confirmed that the train's automatic controls were on, but it also appears that the emergency brake was applied. She said the operator, killed in the crash, had just completed her training in March. Hersman said, unfortunately, unlike the stationary train, the moving one is an older model that does not carry a data recorder.

Ms. HERSMAN: And so we do not expect to get good recording data or information off of that train.

FESSLER: In fact, Hersman said, although it's too soon to tell what caused the accident, the NTSB raised concerns with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority in 2006 about the safety of the older trains and their ability to withstand a crash.

Ms. HERSMAN: We've recommended to WMATA to either retrofit those cars or to phase them out of the fleet. They have not been able to do that and our recommendation was not addressed. So it has been closed in an unacceptable status.

FESSLER: But metro's general manager John Catoe responded that the transit agency still believes the trains are safe.

Mr. JOHN CATOE (General Manager, Washington D.C. Metro Rail): Any car that strikes some other vehicle at a certain rate of speed and with a certain amount of weight, you're going to have severe damage and compromising of the integrity of the structure. Again this is something we will review.

FESSLER: He said changes will be made if necessary, although it will likely be years before the old cars can be replaced, which is something the transit system was already planning to do. Hersman says federal investigators will also be looking at the train's signaling system and track conditions, as well as the evacuation of survivors. One of those survivors was NPR editorial assistant Jasmine Gars, who was on the moving train. She said it was about 15 minutes before passengers were told what to do. And by then many were walking along the tracks, searching for help.

JASMINE GARS: We were scared that they hadn't cut off the electricity on the tracks. We were very worried about that. I was worried that another train would come.

FESSLER: She said everyone walked as quickly as they could, away from the accident scene. But, eventually had to turn around and go in the opposite direction to find help. Authorities say it will likely be days before they can determine the cause of the crash - the worst in the rail system's 33 year history.

Pam Fessler, NPR News Washington

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NTSB Says It Warned Of Train Safety In 2006

Charles Dharapak/AP

Transit authorities in Washington, D.C., were warned about the safety of their older-model subway cars in 2006 but did not follow through on recommendations to upgrade the cars or phase them out, a National Transportation Safety Board official said Tuesday.

At least nine people died in Monday's rush-hour crash of two trains, the deadliest accident in the history of the city's Metrorail system. More than 70 were taken to hospitals.

"We made recommendations in 2006 about the crashworthiness of the 1000-series cars," NTSB spokeswoman Debbie Hersman said at a news conference Tuesday. "We recommended to WMATA [Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority] to either retrofit those cars or phase them out of the fleet. They have not been able to do that and our recommendation was not addressed, so it has been closed in an unacceptable status."

NTSB investigators and fire department personnel were still sifting through the wreckage of the trains on the area's Red Line more than 15 hours after the crash. Firefighters brought in cranes and dogs as they conducted a meticulous search for victims in the mangled debris.

"In layers, we're taking the huge components of steel and metal to dis-encase and to check all the areas where folks may be," said Washington fire Chief Dennis Rubin. He said they hope to finish the process by Tuesday afternoon.

The crash occurred at about 5 p.m. EDT Monday near the border of Maryland and the nation's capital as both trains were headed into downtown Washington.

The first train was stopped on the tracks waiting for another train to clear the Fort Totten train station in an area of the track that is aboveground, transit officials said. That's when a second train plowed into the back of the waiting train, pushing at least one car up onto the tail of the first train. Officials said they did not know if the operator of the second train tried to apply the brakes or even saw the first train before the collision.

The operator of the second train, 42-year-old Jeanice McMillian of Springfield, Va., was killed in the crash. The other victims have not been named, pending notification of their families.

Metrorail spokeswoman Candace Smith said two men and seven women were killed and that all the victims were adults. Four bodies were recovered from the wreckage Monday and five more were removed Tuesday, she said.

Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty had said at an earlier news conference that seven people had died. Seventy-six people were treated at area hospitals; two of them were in critical condition, he said.

Officials are still working with the medical examiner's office to identify the dead.

By Tuesday morning, NTSB investigators were deep into a multipronged investigation, gathering information and records on the system's signals, track conditions, the operator's experience and training, cell and text transmissions, and train maintenance.

The focus appeared to center on the computerized signal system, which officials said was designed to keep trains apart.

Hersman said WMATA's procedures mandate that trains run on automatic control, rather than manual, during rush hour. Assuming that was the case, investigators will be examining the wreckage to try to determine whether the brakes were engaged and the operator could have seen the train in time to avert the crash, she said.

"We don't know at this point whether or not the operator could have seen the train ahead of them in time to stop," Hersman said.

Investigators may take in sample cars and conduct a sight-distance test to determine whether the operator could have seen the train ahead of her, after all of the victims and perishable evidence have been recovered from the scene, according to Hersman.

But she noted that investigators have no hope of getting information from the train that caused the crash because the second, older-model train wasn't equipped with event recorders, despite NTSB recommendations.

However, Hersman said authorities hope to determine the speed of the moving train by examining the recorders on the train that was hit. Since the newer-model train was stopped when it was struck, investigators hope its recorders will tell them how fast the train was propelled forward.

Metro General Manager John Catoe vowed to find out what caused the deadly crash.

"We will find out what happened here, what caused this and put whatever resources are necessary into it to fix it so it will not happen again," he said.

Washington, D.C.'s subway system has experienced other tragedies, including:

• A subway train derailed in downtown Washington in January 2007. Sixty people had to be rescued from the train tunnel, and 20 were sent to the hospital.

• Two Metro track workers were struck and killed by an out-of-service train in November 2006. An investigation found that the train operator had failed to follow safety procedures.

• A Metro worker was struck and killed in May 2006.

• A derailment killed three people on Jan. 13, 1982 — the Metro system's only other fatal crash.

From NPR and wire reports

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