By Christopher A. Hart
The accident happened at rush hour on Monday, June 22, 2009. A stopped train was struck by a following train with such force that the rear car of the stopped train physically intruded into the lead car of the moving train.
Fifty-two people ended their rush hour commutes not at home with their families, but in local hospitals.
Nine more people lost their lives: A young entrepreneur, an Air Force major general and his mortgage-banker wife, the operator of the moving train, and five others.
What caused the crash? A track circuit lost the ability to detect the stopped train. So, the system failed to warn the following train that the track ahead was occupied. However, because the stopped train was on a curve, the sight distance was limited, so by the time the operator of the following train saw the stopped train and activated the emergency brake, it was too late.
We made recommendations not only to WMATA, but to others as well. Among them: the manufacturer of the faulty train control equipment, other transit agencies using the equipment, and the Federal Transit Administration.
Before the accident, there were problems with the safety culture at WMATA.
There was an enhanced track circuit test procedure developed after an earlier incident that was never institutionalized system-wide.
When technicians installed new track circuit components, they noticed that the circuit was sometimes malfunctioning, but left it installed in that condition. A crew leader reported the problem to the maintenance operations center, but nobody acted on it.
When the stopped train became electronically invisible, there was a warning on WMATA’s central dispatch board, but the warning occurred so often that it was ignored. On the following train, where the warning should have occurred, there was no warning.
WMATA managers placed a low priority on addressing such malfunctions.
WMATA has improved its safety culture in the five years since.
Statistically travel by rail is safe. In and around Washington, WMATA is working to make it safer. But safety is a journey, not a destination.
This year WMATA introduced its new 7000 series cars, with the most enhanced safety features and design in the WMATA fleet. We look forward to the day when WMATA retires the less crashworthy 1000 series cars forever.
And WMATA is far from the only transit or commuter rail system where there have been recent accidents. In 2008 and 2014, there were mass transit accidents involving Chicago Transit Authority trains. In 2008 there was a fatal Metrolink accident, in Chatsworth, CA, because the train operator was texting. There were five accidents involving trains in the Metro North commuter rail system in a one-year span.
When you step onto a train headed to or from work, shopping, or the airport, you deserve to know you’ll arrive safely at your destination. That’s why “Promote Operational Safety in Rail Mass Transit” is on our Most Wanted List of advocacy priorities.
WMATA’s actions since the crash, and the actions it takes in the future, will be living memorials to those who were lost.
If you would like to know more about the people lost in the accident, the Washington Post compiled these profiles. If you have memories of that day please share them, using the “comment” link at the top of this post.