A year of investigations has confirmed that the failure of track sensors and automatic braking systems caused the June 2009 DC Metro crash in which nine people lost their lives and more than 70 crew members and passengers suffered serious injuries. In announcing their findings on July 27, 2010, federal investigators noted that the deadly collision between two Red Line trains in the Maryland (MD) suburbs of Washington, D.C., was just an accident waiting to happen.
The National Transportation Safety Board identified “a lack of a safety culture within” Metro’s managing agency, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Administration, as the leading contributor to the light-rail accident. Some fault was also assigned to “ineffective safety oversight by the WMATA Board of Directors and the Tri-State Oversight Committee [as well as] the Federal Transit Administration’s lack of statutory authority to provide federal safety oversight.”
In short, as NTSB Chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman told reporters, “Metro was on a collision course long before this accident. … Our report shows, this was not the first time Metro’s safety system was compromised.”
WMATA has pledged to upgrade its safety equipment and operating procedures. Despite such efforts, DC Metro has continued seeing fatal and near fatal incidents throughout its system of underground and aboveground rails since the summer of 2009. In the worst occurrence, two track workers died when a piece of machinery rolled over them inside a tunnel while they were performing maintenance.
I can only hope that WMATA takes the lessons from the NTSB investigation to heart and makes the changes to its equipment and procedures that are necessary to protect the lives and health of its employees and passengers. The situation in D.C. also has local relevance, as Norfolk’s light-rail system, the Tide, is scheduled to begin operation next year. Commuters must be able to trust that they will be safe every time they take a ride on a subway car, bus or other form of public transportation.