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Communication Breakdown Led Train Operator To Ignore Red Light, Metro Says

Updated 1 p.m.

Metro is faulting human error for a red light overrun that resulted in an Orange Line train coming within 200 feet of another train shortly after midnight on Feb. 3.

The train operator and a rail traffic controller were suspended pending the investigation into the potentially dangerous incident. The operator of Orange Line train No. 904 misunderstood commands from rail traffic controllers to stop at Federal Triangle, according to the results of an internal Metro investigation presented to the transit authority’s board of directors on Thursday.

The communication breakdown appears to have occurred during a simple verbal exchange of nonetheless critical information between the operator and controller.

Train No. 904 was headed in the direction of Vienna but was forced to offload its passengers at McPherson Square after a problem arose with Metro’s automatic train control system. Rail traffic controllers ordered the operator to reverse course under a speed restriction of 15 mph but to stop at Federal Triangle because another train, No. 992, already was occupying the platform at the next station, Smithsonian. That train’s doors were open and it was awaiting instructions.

“[The operator] approached and passed a red signal,” said Lou Brown, Metro’s acting chief safety officer, who said Train No. 904 was moving at 10 mph.

“The directions given from the controller were clear that the [train operator] was only to go to Federal Triangle. For whatever reason he didn’t hear that. He thought he was cleared to go to Smithsonian,” Brown said.

The operator repeated the instruction back to the controller incorrectly, said Rob Troup, Metro’s rail's operations chief. But the controller gave him the affirmative to proceed anyway.

“It is why we have a highly engineered system to be able to minimize human errors that occur. We recognize these things happen, but again, it’s under investigation,” Troup said in remarks to reporters.

Speed restriction worked

Train operators are permitted to pass red signals only with special permission, but in this case no such permission was given.

“When he rounded the bend and saw the train he came to a controlled stop. We verified this with the event data recorder and the interviews with the operator and controller. He came to a stop 189 feet from the other train,” Brown added.

Troup said the first three safety checks that are in place to prevent red light overruns failed, but that the mandatory speed restriction for this circumstance worked as designed.

Brown said there is no evidence indicating the train operator was using a personal cell phone or otherwise distracted. The Federal Transit Investigation also is investigating.

Red light overruns were identified as a chronic problem by federal safety investigators. Train operators overran 47 red signals from 2012 through 2015, and there were more signal overruns in 2015 than in the prior two years combined, according to an investigation by the FTA released last June.

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