As Four Year Anniversary of 2009 Metro Crash Approaches, WUSA9 Asks "Are We Safe?"

10:14 PM, Jun 20, 2013   |    comments
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WASHINGTON (WUSA9) -- The fourth anniversary of the horrific 2009 Metro crash that killed 9 and hurt dozens more in Fort Totten is June 22nd.

WUSA9's Debra Alfarone spoke one-on-one with Metro's CEO and General Manager, Richard Sarles, to find out if Metro riders are safer today.

First, we asked Sarles about the massive communication breakdown some are calling "intercom-gate," where intercoms on dozens of rail cars were inoperable, possibly for years. 

Metro announced Wednesday that they reconfigured the order of the rail cars, so most will now work. Sarles commented about how Metro deals with issues and said, "The important thing is to face the problem when you see it, try and address it." The following is a transcript of the discussion that followed:

Alfarone: Speaking of that, with all due respect, people are talking about the intercom issue, the fact that the intercoms have been broken for quite a number of years, if you're going to face it when it happens, how come it took so long to address it?

Sarles: Well, that's one of the things, as I said just the other day, the engineers have found the solution for the 6000-1000 series cars, and that will be corrected within the next few weeks. I made operational changes so that where one 6000 series car was in the lead and there was a 1000 series behind it, that is when the intercoms wouldn't work so well, so we are addressing that same thing with the 4000 series cars, we'll address that. I asked for and I'm going to have a review by our chief safety officer of everything that went on to determine whether we had brought things forth in a timely fashion as we could have. So, that's one of the parts of the review.

Alfarone: Seems like we knew about these issues though for a while.

Sarles: That's part of the review to see everything that's factored into that, so we can come to a conclusion see where we can improve.

Alfarone: Are you happy with how you guys have handled this?

Sarles: I'll tell you that when we're done with the review.

WUSA9 will follow up. 

Back to the question: are we safer? 

We sat down with National Transportation Safety Board Chair Deborah Hersman to talk about the Board's thoughts about Metro at the time of the crash. Hersman admits, "Our frustration was probably with respect to the operation, that it seemed like for years ... the work that we had done and the recommendations that we had made had fallen on deaf ears."

We now know that the crash changed the safety culture of the Metro. Twenty seven different NTSB recommendations emerged from this tragedy. 

Sarles says Metro has made progress, "We've closed out 9 of the 27 recommendations from the NTSB, we've submitted another 10 for closure."

One of the top recommendations was to get rid of the 1000 series cars. The lead car in the striking train in the 2009 crash that telescoped into the other was a 1,000 series. They still run today.

Hersman explains, "The issue with the crashworthiness of the older cars - and remember these are the cars that originally came with the system, the first sets of cars in 1970s that were delivered, so certainly we've learned a lot since then - we recommended in previous investigations that Metro either retrofit these cars so they were more crashworthy or eliminate them from their fleet. And sadly, it wasn't until we had the subsequent crash in 2009 that attention was really focused on the condition of these cars, and where the funding from the local area, from the congress, would materialize." Hersman did mention some positive news. "The good news is they put the money forward, they had an order to build new cars, and the first of those new cars will be delivered later this year. It's great to see 7000 series cars with better crash worthiness standards be on the horizon for Metro riders."

To be clear, Sarles says even though the newer 7000 series will be delivered within months, the 1000s will still be in service for the next couple of years. 

In 2010, the estimate to replace 300 of the 1000 series cars hovered at around $835 million. Since the crash, those 1000 series cars don't lead or end trains, but are "bellied" in the middle. So, even though the 1000 series are still in service, are we safe?

Sarles answers, "I felt it was safe to ride the system, I ride it 6 days a week as it is."

Metro and Sarles' may receive a lot of criticism for various issues, including escalator outages, delays and most loudly perhaps, weekend track work, but Sarles says work to reconstruct, not just fix, aging tracks and stations is the way to go.

"You get a lot more work done, you do it more safely and frankly, it's a better use of the taxpayer's dollars," said Sarles.

Speaking of money, another issue Sarles has taken a hit on is his $350,000-a-year salary. Next year, he will make more. His response to that, "My salary is competitive with others in this country."

Sarles says improving safety and customer service are top of mind, "We're going to honor the memory of those who had died by really working on the safety." 

Since the crash, train operators have been manually running trains rather than using the automatic system previously in place. It was determined that the contributing factor to the crash was that the train control system stopped detecting the sitting train, and allowed speed commands to be transmitted to the striking train.

A condition called parasitic oscillation in the track circuit modules created a fake signal that mimicked a valid one. Sarles, speaks of this, "What we did is put in place a measuring device that would detect the parasitic oscillation that was implicated in Fort Totten, that has been in place for quite some time now. and has been approved, reviewed by the NTSB so we can detect that."

Hersman says the crash brought about real change, "It rocked the Washington area, Metro riders, and in the end it resulted in changes in the Metro system, and also required the nation to respond differently with respect to transit oversight. Before the Metro crash, the oversight was done at the local level, it was one of the few modes of transportation that didn't have any federal oversight."

We asked Hersman if Metro is safer now.

She said she has seen a positive change in the agency's safety culture, "We did issue more than a dozen recommendations of them. They've completed work on about half of the recommendations that we issued, some of the recommendations are longer term, things like the 1000 series cars, things like their signaling system, this legacy system that was part of the original 1970s installation, but other things are not about equipment and not about things that cost money but are about the culture of the organization and changing that. I can say that we're still making progress."

Our last question to Sarles was, "Are we safer now than we were 4 years ago on Metro?" 

His answer, "Yes."

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