Thursday, October 22, 2009

WMATA and the NTSB

Crossposted at Greater Greater Washington

WMATA has had a few rough months with worker deaths and bus-pedestrian collisions, and with the June 22 Metro accident still fresh in our minds, the agency has come under fire for its safety record. Greater Greater Washington's Dave Stroup recently wrote the second installment in his "Price of Safety" series looking at WMATA's safety culture. Some of the comments there wondered about WMATA's track record in terms of NTSB recomendations.

The goal of the National Transportation Safety Board is to improve safety in our transportation system. Sometimes issues stretch beyond the agency where an accident occured. When this happens, they often issue recomendations to all the applicable agencies. A crash in Chicago in January 1976, over two months before Metro opened, resulted in a set of recomendations to WMATA (issued in August 1976, after the system had opened). WMATA and other agencies were responsible for responding to NTSB by either complying or giving reasons why they would not do so.

Since 1970, the NTSB has issued 81 recommendations to WMATA. The vast majority of the closed recommendations are considered to be acceptable responses by NTSB. The 81 recommendations are associated with 11 events, but only 7 events took place on WMATA's rail system.

Of the 81 recommendations:

  • 55 (68%) are "Closed-Acceptable Action"

  • 4 (5%) more are "Closed-Acceptable Alternative Action"

  • 6 (7%) are "Closed-Unacceptable Action"

  • 1 was superseded by a different recommendation.

  • 15 (19%) are currently open
Let's take a look at the 7 events which happened on the WMATA system, totaling 73 recommendations.

Smithsonian Derailment, 1/13/1982
This accident claimed 3 lives and destroyed one railcar at the interlocking (crossover) between Smithsonian and Federal Triangle. To date, this accident resulted in the most NTSB recommendations to WMATA - 34. Of those recommendations, 30 are considered acceptably closed by the NTSB. The four that were closed unacceptably by WMATA are:

  • R-82-058: Modify the overspeed control on the Metrorail cars to enforce speed commands of the Automatic Train Protection subsystem to and including zero miles per hour. author's note:WMATA's correspondence with NTSB indicates that this modification was rejected because it would make 'rescue' trains and yard moves more difficult.

  • R-82-059: Change the identification numbers of interlockings and interlocking signals to eliminate possible misunderstandings which could result in a train improperly passing a restricting signal. author's note: WMATA informed NTSB that it regarded re-identifing all of the interlockings and signals in the system was infeasible. However, they did switch to using the NATO phonetic alphabet for letters.

  • R-82-071: Equip each Metrorail car with an adequate number of self-contained, battery-powered emergency lights which will automatically illuminate the car interior in the event the car's auxillary and emergency power is lost. author's note: The agency chose not to implement this recommendation because it regarded the auxillary and emergency power systems in each railcar in combination with subway tunnel lighting as sufficient.

  • R-82-073: Retrofit existing Metrorail cars with derailment detector devices which will apply the brakes in emergency when a car wheel leaves the rail. Require that all new cars be so equipped. author's note: According to the correspondence on record, WMATA looked at other transit systems in the United States. At that time, only BART used such technology and reported significant maintenance problems and passenger delays due to a breakdown of the derailment detectors. WMATA chose not to implement the technology.
CSX Derailments in Takoma Park and Silver Spring, 6/19/1987, 9/5/1987, 9/17/1987
A series of right-of-way incursions due to freight railcar derailments in 1987 resulted in 3 recommendations by the NTSB. In two of the cases, freight trains derailed into the WMATA right-of-way. The third case was caused when vandals parked a backhoe on the CSX tracks. When struck, the backhoe violated WMATA's right-of-way, causing damage to a parked Metro train. Systems designed to stop trains functioned properly, but WMATA sought additional safety systems. Of the three recommendations to both CSX and WMATA, 2 were closed acceptably. A third was close with an unacceptable action by WMATA and CSX.

  • R-88-015: Until permanent solutions to joint corridor occupancy are implemented and their safety effectiveness is assessed, develop and implement a plan to control the access of WMATA transit trains and CSX freight trains into the common transportation corridor where WMATA trackage lies between the two tracks of CSXT so that CSXT freight trains and WMATA transit trains do not simultaneously occupy this corridor. author's note: In this case, NTSB wanted it to be impossibe for a Metro train to be on either track between Rhode Island Avenue and Silver Spring if a CSX train was in the same stretch on either of its tracks. CSX found the proposal untenable. Therefore, the NTSB found the actions unacceptable.
Shady Grove Collision, 1/6/1996
On a snowy night in January, a Red Line train overshot the platform at Shady Grove and crashed into a parked train north of the station, killing the operator of the striking train. After the collision, the NTSB sent WMATA 20 recommendations. All but one of these recommendations are classified as "Closed-Acceptable Action." The other was superseded by a later recommendation.

Woodley Park Collision, 11/3/2004
This collision occurred when an out-of-service train rolled backwards into Woodley Park from the direction of Cleveland Park, crashing into a Red Line train servicing the platform. Luckily there were no deaths. The NTSB issued three recommendations, one of which is currently open. Another is closed with "Acceptable Action." WMATA failed to satisfy NTSB recommendations on the final recommendation.

  • R-06-002: 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. author's note: As has been pointed out in the aftermath of June's crash, WMATA did not follow through on this recommendation due to lack of funding. At the time the NTSB issued its recommendation, the 1000 series (Rohr-built) cars made up almost one-third of the fleet. With no money to replace them, rail service would be forced to take major cuts.
Mount Vernon Square Derailment, 1/7/2007
In this derailment, a Green Line train derailed on the crossover immediately south of Mount Vernon Square during single-tracking. Currently, the six NTSB recommendations issued in the wake of this derailment are all still open. Two are considered to be open with "Unacceptable Action." Recommendation R-07-027 was for better lubrication practices, especially during single-tracking operations. WMATA's response to NTSB was not considered to be a strong enough action. The other recommendation which NTSB is not satisfied is being accomplished properly is their admonishment to add guard rails at all interlockings with a certain sharp-radius turn. NTSB feels that WMATA's efforts are not moving quickly enough.

Striking of wayside workers at Dupont Circle and Eisenhower Avenue
The four recommendations from these incidents are currently all regarded as "Open-Acceptable Action."

Fort Totten Collision, 6/22/2009
So far, NTSB has issued three urgent recommendations to WMATA. All are "Open-Await Response." NTSB's report on the incident will likely not be complete before summer 2010. It is very likely that more recommendations will be issued at that time.

A full list of WMATA's NTSB recommendations can be found by searching for "Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority" in the "Addressee" field at NTSB's Safety Recommendation Query page.

While these nunbers indicate that WMATA is very good at responding to NTSB criticisms, that does not necessarily indicate the presence of a "safety culture." In fact, in some cases, the sheer volume of recommendations could indicate that the agency had left quite a bit to be desired in terms of fixes. In the cases where NTSB considers WMATA's actions to be insufficient, some problem resolutions that are expensive or complex, but still important seem to have fallen by the wayside.

Of course, WMATA can only do so much with limited resources. NTSB is not responsible for locating funding for necessary fixes, and their recommendations often place a large burden on the agency. One of the unfulfilled recommendations issued by NTSB called for the retirement of the 1000-series railcars as soon as possible. But pulling almost one-third of the fleet is not something any transit agency can do without major repercussions to service and reliability. As I pointed out shortly after the June 2009 crash, the recommendations from NTSB to retire the 1000 series came in March 2006. Even if Metro had ordered railcars on the day of the recommendation, they would still be being produced. In fact, it is likely that even if cars had been ordered on the day of the Woodley Park crash in 2004, they'd still be in production.

It is clear that WMATA still needs to work on safety. And it is very likely that the accidents that have happened over the past several months will spur some improvement. Metro's record shows a good history of responding favorably to NTSB. But for a true safety culture to develop, WMATA needs to be able to anticipate potential problems and address them before accidents occur.

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