City Desk

Old Questions About Crashworthiness of Metro Cars

At the early date, not quite four hours after this evening's deadly Red Line collision, there is little information to be had at this point about the type and age of the cars involved in the crash. [UPDATE, 9:05 P.M.: Metro General Manager John Catoe said in a press conference that the last car on the stopped train was a relatively new 5000-series CAF-built car; the lead car on the moving train was a 1000-series Rohr-built car—the oldest type in the system.] However, it is worth reviewing some historical criticism of the structural integrity of certain Metro cars levied in the past by the National Transportation Safety Board.

In January 1996, two trains collided at the Shady Grove station at between 22 and 29 mph; in that crash, the moving train "telescoped" 21 feet over the stationary train, "severely compromising the occupant volume of the striking car." Almost nine years later, in November 2004, a Red Line train, its operator asleep at the wheel, slid backward and struck a train stopped at the Woodley Park station—again, the moving train telescoped some 20 feet over the stopped one. According to the subsequent NTSB report [PDF], "Almost half of the passenger occupant volume of the striking car...was also severely compromised."

Today's crash, based on the extreme "telescoping" seen in photographs, seems to have taken place at higher speeds. But the survivability of the crash might have something to do with the type and age of the cars involved.

In response to NTSB questions about the 1996 incident, Metro conducted a review of its cars' structural strength. This is how the NTSB, in the wake of the 2004 crash, described the response:

WMATA stated that its consultant determined that it was neither practical nor desirable to add underframe reinforcement and that such modification possibly could result in more injuries. WMATA also stated that it would have been impractical to modify the 1000-series Metrorail cars before they are scrapped and it would be prohibitive to modify the 2000, 3000, and 4000 series when they are refurbished. As a result of this response, the Board classified Safety Recommendation R-96-37 “Closed—Acceptable Action” based on the information that WMATA’s position on the existing fleet was reasonable and that the intent of the recommendation had been met.

Here was the NTSB's recommendation on the Woodley Park crash, delivered in 2006:

Because the 1000-series, Rohr-built, passenger railcars, which will comprise 26 percent of the Metrorail passenger railcar fleet when all the cars are delivered, are vulnerable to catastrophic telescoping damage and complete loss of occupant survival space in a longitudinal end-structure collision (as occurred at the Woodley Park station), the Safety Board believes that WMATA should either accelerate retirement of Rohr-built railcars, or if those railcars are not retired but instead rehabilitated, then the Rohr-built passenger railcars should incorporate a retrofit of crashworthiness collision protection that is comparable to the 6000-series railcars.

Further conclusions: "The failure of the carbody (underframe) end structure of the 1000-series Metrorail cars may make them susceptible to telescoping and potentially subject to a catastrophic compromise of the occupant survival space" and "The failure to have minimum crashworthiness standards for preventing telescoping of rail transit cars in collisions places an unnecessary risk on passengers and crew."

UPDATE, 9:10 P.M.: Interesting note from the 2006 NTSB report: "The 5000-series cars that have been delivered are equipped with an on-board event recorder system."

UPDATE, 9:12 P.M.: Catoe: "I have no basis to suspend the use of 1000-series cars at this time."

UPDATE, 6/23, 8:15 A.M.: NTSB's Debbie Hersman this morning confirms that the the striking train was a 1000-series car and that the struck train was a mix of 3000- and 5000-series. She notes that the NTSB has "long been on record" about the crashworthiness of the 1000 series. "We recommended to WMATA to either retrofit those cars or phase them out of service," she says. "Those concerns were not addressed."

UPDATE, 6/23, 8:40 A.M.: More warnings from the NTSB, these from recommendations issued in 2006 [PDF], in response to the Woodley crash:

In WMATA’s March 2002 response to the Safety Board’s recommendation (R-96-37) to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of Metrorail cars and make modifications to improve their crashworthiness, WMATA stated that its consultant determined that it was neither practical nor desirable to add underframe reinforcement and that such modification possibly could result in more injuries. WMATA also stated that it would have been impractical to modify the 1000-series Metrorail cars before they are scrapped and it would be prohibitive to modify the 2000, 3000, and 4000 series when they are refurbished. As a result of this response, the Board classified Safety Recommendation R-96-37 “Closed—Acceptable Action” based on the information that WMATA’s position on the existing fleet was reasonable and that the intent of the recommendation had been met.

The Safety Board concluded that the failure of the carbody (underframe) end structure of the 1000-series Metrorail cars may make them susceptible to telescoping and potentially subject to a catastrophic compromise of the occupant survival space. WMATA’s evaluation, which determined that it was impractical to modify the 1000-series cars and their crashworthiness performance in collisions, in effect validates the scheduled retirement of the cars. Any replacement car should be designed with crashworthiness components for absorbing maximum energy in a collision and to transmit minimum acceleration to passengers without override or telescoping, as found in the current 5000-series railcars and specified for the 6000-series cars.

Again, the ultimate recommendation:

Either accelerate retirement of Rohr-built railcars, or if those railcars are not retired but instead rehabilitated, then the Rohr-built passenger railcars should incorporate a retrofit of crashworthiness collision protection that is comparable to the 6000-series railcars. (R-06-2)

Here is WMATA's response, as contained in NTSB records:

WMATA does not plan to do a heavy overhaul on the 1000 Series, Rohr railcars. Instead WMATA plans to replace these railcars with the 7000 Series railcars on which design has already started. WMATA is constrained by tax advantage leases, which require that WMATA keep the 1000 Series cars in service at least until the end of 2014. The 296 Rohr railcars make up over a third of WMATA’s current rail fleet and have performed well for over thirty years. The railcars will be replaced around 2014. Current Situation: All WMATA rail cars are fitted with anti-climbers on the end of the cars. These are designed to engage during a collision and to reduce the tendency for one car to climb over the other. The newer 6000 design, while retaining the anti-climber feature, has included additional energy absorption in the front end of the car. That absorbs energy as its deforms and collapses in a higher speed collision. This type of design will be used on future procurements.

NTSB's reply:

In view of WMATA’s response to the Board’s recommendation, it appears that further dialogue on this issue would prove futile. Consequently, we have no choice but to classify Safety Recommendation R-06-2 Closed Unacceptable Action.

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  • Matthew Swanson

    I think given the fact that every major accident involving the collision of two trains head on as resulted in the "telescoping" effect... Metro should seriously re-consider this NTSB evidence and either begin retiring the effected cars (especially the 1000 and 2000 series) and/or retro-fit the cars for safety (probably best with the 3000, 4000 and 5000 series)... They may also need to test the 6000 series to ensure meet better safety standards. I'd also like to see information on the computer systems controlling the trains. As I understood, it is supposed to prevent any train from approaching the segment of track in between two stations if there is already another train in that section--so what went wrong--or who was manually controlling when they shouldn't have been? Lots of unanswered questions that I hope WMATA is prepared to answer soon!

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  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L3whFgsNKUQ Robert proudfoot

    The Federal Railroad Administration has conducted tests to prevent telescoping before in 2006.

    Here is a video of the new design for Crash Energy Management. It illustrates what you are talking about with the need for new safety.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L3whFgsNKUQ

  • Q

    Here's a thought, why not move the 1000 series cars to the internal train and have the front and rear cars be the safer (5000 series) ones? If 26% of the fleet is 1000 series, that is a significant enough to at least do some shuffling of the cars to minimize telescoping and at least have more data recorders.

    I'm not NTSB and my comments are solely based on the evidence here. Thanks Robert for the video. It looks that the difference between the crashes is that the cars have a buffer area built in to lessen the impact.

  • Alan

    I see little sign of "telescoping" in the photos of the recent collision. I don't think you know what that term means. It does NOT refer to going airborne and ending up on top of another car. It refers to the car collapsing like an aluminum can when you stomp on it. The "telescoping" problem the NTSB was concerned about does not appear to have been a factor in this crash. What you should be investigating is why the driver of the moving train did not stop before rear ending the stationary train.

  • Q

    Okay Alan. I stand corrected. In reviewing the photos, telescoping did occur, but as you implied, not to the degree of the videos presented. Of the "striking train" the chassis seems to be missing, unless it collapsed under the frame upon impact. What the images do show is more of a question of physics. Objects in motion tend to stay in motion, so with that, the "striking train" had to dissipate the energy and velocity in which it was traveling. The "stationary train" did absorb some of this energy based on TV video, but its mass was enough to cause the "striking train" to launch upward.

    BTW, its kinda hard to investigate why the operator/driver didn't hit the brakes when she is deceased. The only thing they are left to investigate is whether the signaling or the ATO failed some how.

  • abuzznDC

    The chronically cash strapped WMATA has snubbed the recommendations of the NTSB for years and thus creating this recipe for disaster. These lapses in rider safety and the wrongful death and injury claims which are sure to follow, should keep WMATA with 'hat in hand' for years to come with the ridership doing the bankroll. When all the findings are in, Senior management at WMATA should be shown the Exit.

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  • Shagmag

    A source from WMATA provided the following information;

    Both trains where headed from Glenmont (End of line) into town at the time of the incident. Train # two collided with train #1 with better that 60 feet of the incident train embedded into the end car of train #1. The operator of car # 2 and eight others were fatally injured as a result of the collision. (Total 9 dead) The trains were single tracking at the time of the incident. He recited that it did not appear the first train derailed as reported by the news, but could not confirm. The incident train was a 1000 series car which was 31 years old. The NTSB is heading the investigation. While the trains system has ATC which would not allow a vehicle to come within 500 feet of another vehicle. The absolute block of the signal system may not have been engaged. Information and opinion gleaned from an individual on the scene.

  • Alan

    There was recently a rear end collision on the Green line in Boston. It occurred in a station and the station surveillance cameras showed that the driver of the moving train was texting on his cell phone at the time of the crash. I have no idea what the driver of this WMATA train was doing at the time of yesterday's crash, but it is abundantly clear what she was NOT doing--she was not doing her job, and specifically, her duty to stop her train before it struck another train stopped on the track ahead.

  • Eric L

    Not to seem like I am on the side of WMATA, but this chronically cash strapped agency is in this position not so much from mismanagement or waste, but because there is no dedicated funding stream coming from the District, MD, VA or the Feds. Every year there is a battle between the different government enitities on how much to fund Metro. Must make planned modernizations and improvements almost impossible to implement in a timely manner. We are very blessed to have a first rate modern and efficient subway system, but the facts of the matter is it is aging and without a steady stream of funding accidents like this will continue to happen.

  • jnocook

    Alan, it seems so easy for you to criticise while not knowing the facts. It was reported that the emergency stop on the trailing train had been pressed and there's no indication that this wasn't OTHER than a mechanical / signaling / computer control issue.

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