By SARAH BRUMFIELD Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) The federal investigation of a Metrorail crash last summer that killed nine people has revealed a breakdown of safety management throughout the D.C. area's transit system, including faulty signaling equipment that may have led to the accident.
Investigators have said since weeks after the crash that a control system's failure to recognize the presence of a stopped train was the likely cause of the crash. On Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board chairwoman said safety problems in the system went much further.
"Metro was on a collision course long before this accident," Chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman said in her opening statements at a meeting on the June 2009 crash. "As our report shows, this was not the first time Metro's safety system was compromised."
Previous accidents, some of which killed employees, foreshadowed the deadlier crash, she said.
"Because the necessary preventive measures were not taken, the only question was when would Metro have another accident and of what magnitude," Hersman said.
Investigators were discussing their findings with the board, which will vote on the probable cause of the accident. It will also issue recommendations likely sweeping and costly on how to avoid similar disasters.
Eight passengers and a train operator were killed and dozens injured when a train heading into downtown Washington from the Maryland suburbs during the evening rush struck a second train stopped before the Fort Totten station. The lead car of the moving train telescoped and overrode the rear car of the stopped train by about 50 feet.
Carolyn Jenkins of Washington, whose daughter Veronica Dubose was killed in the crash, said she came to Tuesday's hearing seeking closure. Jenkins now cares for her two grandchildren, ages 2 and 8.
"I want to hear what really happened. I want to hear the truth," Jenkins said. "I want everyone to stop pointing fingers."
The NTSB has no regulatory or enforcement powers, but a failure by Metro to comply with its recommendations could cause federal and state governments to curtail the transit agency's funding. The board wields similar influence over transit agencies around the country and can ask them to follow its recommendations.
Metro announced last week that it is putting aside $30 million over three years to carry out whatever recommendations come out of the NTSB's meeting. But that's just a fraction of what Metro is spending on upgrades. The agency announced Tuesday that it has awarded an $886 million contract to Kawasaki to manufacture 428 rail cars, 300 of which will be used to replace aging cars currently in use.
The train that crashed was made up of six of the older cars, which date to the 1970s. The new cars are less prone to telescoping during crashes.
If Metro's track circuits, simple electronic devices meant to detect stopped trains on the tracks, had been working properly, the system would have automatically slowed the approaching train. But the failure of the circuit meant that the driver of the approaching train was receiving messages telling her she could proceed at 55 mph.
According to Jim Southworth, NTSB's railroad chief, and a video simulation prepared by the board, the driver of the striking train applied the emergency brakes three seconds after she first could see the train ahead. The brakes worked, but only slowed the train from 55 mph to 44 mph at the time of impact.
Even if the operator, Jeanice McMillan, who was killed in the crash had applied the brakes the instant she saw the back of the train car ahead of her, it would not have been enough time to prevent the crash, Southworth said.
NTSB staff member Ruben Payan told the board that Metro had been aware that the track circuits were known to fail. Five days before the accident, technicians tested the circuit that malfunctioned, but used an old test that failed to detect the failure. An up-to-date test, Payan said, likely would have caught the problem.
Weeks after the crash, the NTSB urged Metro to upgrade its train control system, saying daily reviews of the signaling system were not sufficient. A post-crash review found that track circuits failed periodically in the days before the crash.
Metro says it now evaluates track circuit performance twice a day, has stopped mixing train control components from different manufacturers and established a new test to find circuits susceptible to problems. Immediately after the crash, Metro switched to manual operation of trains instead of automatic, a change that remains in effect.
This was not Metro's only deadly accident in recent years. Two Metro workers were crushed to death on tracks in January when a maintenance truck backed into them. Last year, two more Metro workers were killed in separate incidents.
There was also a close call in December when several inspectors from the Tri-State Oversight Committee, which monitors safety at Metro, were nearly hit.
Before the hearing began, the NTSB privately screened its animated reenactment of the crash for relatives of victims. Delshawnda King, whose younger sister Lavonda King died in the crash, said watching the video was a powerful moment.
"I already had an idea of what happened," King said, "but this was like seeing it."
Associated Press writers Matthew Barakat, Lauren Sausser, Jessica Gresko and Ben Nuckols contributed to this report. (Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
The NTSB describes a lack of safety culture at Metro.