City Desk

NTSB’s Metro Crash Report: Should We Blame The Metro Board?


By now, you have at least skimmed the stories on the NTSB's findings concerning the fatal Metro crash. Before we forget about the NTSB's report until the next crash, let's take a moment to debate whether we should put some of the blame on the Metro Board. The only thing the board knows how to do is vote on fare hikes. Ensuring your safety as you commute to work? Forget it.

WaPo reports:

"The NTSB found that nearly half of the 3,000 track circuit modules that Metro uses could seriously malfunction and that a quarter of its rail cars, the oldest in the fleet, offer little protection in the event of a crash, posing an "unacceptable risk to Metrorail users." Although Metro is monitoring the problem circuits much more aggressively to manage that risk, the board recommended that the troublesome equipment and old rail cars be permanently removed as soon as possible. The NTSB has no statutory power to enforce its recommendations, which it makes without regard to cost."

[NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P] Hersman denounced Metro's failure to apply lessons from a near-crash by the Rosslyn Station in 2005, which she said could have prevented the June 22, 2009, accident near the Fort Totten Station, in which one train crashed into another, killing the driver and eight passengers and injuring scores of others.

'Metro was on a collision course long before this accident,' Hersman said in an opening statement to the public meeting, attended by senior Metro leaders and safety oversight officials, as well as families of the crash victims. 'The only question was when Metro would have another accident — and of what magnitude.'"

Shouldn't the board be punished for ignoring that earlier NTSB report? The problem isn't that Metro leadership ignored just that one report. Metro has a history of ignoring NTSB reports.

On the evening of the fatal crash at Fort Totten in June, our former LL Mike DeBonis was able to pull together previous crashes that appeared to foreshadow this tragedy—the 1996 train collusion at Shady Grove, and a 2004 crash in Woodley Park. DeBonis found in each case, the NTSB released a report that appeared to go ignored by WMATA. This is the NTSB in response to the Woodley Park 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."

And its 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)"

Greater Greater Washington thinks the board should get a pass. The blog argues today:

"NTSB staff also blamed the Board for not doing more on safety. NTSB member Robert Sumwalt also repeatedly brought up the Board's role during questioning. According to one presentation by Loren Groff, they felt the Board should have not only asked tough questions of top management, but gone around them to conduct their own investigations into the safety operation of the organization.

That seems unrealistic. It's probably true the Board could have asked more tough questions. They could have commissioned an Inspector General's report. But they asked safety questions of the General Manager and got what seemed like satisfactory answers.

According to the NTSB discussion, the Board asked the General Manager to explain the top safety incidents and what was being done about them. The Board sees itself as a policy-making body, and doesn't meddle in day to day operations. Asking the GM for a safety summary seems like the right approach. If the GM's summary was misleading, it would be nice if Board members had psychically divined this, but it's hard to see how exactly they could have."

The board needed no such psychic powers. All they had to do was read previous NTSB reports. The same reports that they ignored over and over again.

*file photo by Darrow Montgomery.

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  • IMGoph

    ok, let's say the board took the 1000 (and for good measure, the 2000 and 3000) series cars out of service.

    how does the region not seize up entirely due to gridlock because of this? we'd have 4-car trains running on something like 10 minute headways during rush hour. metro would simply have to fold up shop for a few years until they could buy enough cars to make things work again.

    it sucks, but i think our only choice is to accept the horrible risk until we have received the new cars to replace the old ones.

  • Jason Cherkis

    But if they changed the cars years ago then horrible risk wouldn't be part of riding Metro.

  • Rick Mangus

    It was stated tonight by the head CLOWN at Metro that it will take up to, "four years to replace the 1000 series cars", WHAT ARE YOU KIDDING ME!

    Remember this, another substantial fare increase starts August 1st, think about that the next time the subway is closed because of snow, which by the way NEVER happens in New York City or Chicago and their rail system is a lot older and their winters are a lot worse!

    The final step is get rid of that criminal transit union which coddles stupid and dangerous employees!

  • Jason Cherkis

    Rick, the NTSB also made reference to supervisors intimidating the rank and file if they try to speak up about safety concerns. But yeah, I get your anger and am angry too about the delay in replacing those cars and the fare hike. Not to mention the broken elevators.

  • IMGoph

    jason: sure, if they'd have bought new cars years ago, this wouldn't be an issue. but where would the money have come from? a republican president and congress earmarking money for a transit program in a deep blue area? not in a billion years.

    the fact is that, no matter which political party is in charge, no one wants to spend the money they need to spend for this to be a quality system. americans are too cheap and not forward-looking enough.

  • Isn’t It Obvious

    Metro (WMATA) is DC's version of BP Oil. Metro has received as many recommendations and warnings from the NTSB regarding its train and rail line problems as BP received from OSHA in fines (760 fines out of a total 761 fines issued to all Oil Companies; Exxon received 1 fine). Metro seems to consider its riders as collateral damage, the same way BP considered its workers and the folks in the Gulf as collateral damage in the event of an oil spill. Result: Metro wreck; and oil spill. Until the NTSB has more power to issue fines and to do more than just make recommendations that the companies are not required to follow, nothing will change. Corporations are not interested in consumer safety; they are interested in making a profit. Just as the question is asked with BP - How are they still in business with such an aweful track record for safety, the same should be asked for Metro (WMATA).

    Here is the website for BP:

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