Failure plagues Metro: Safety problems detected on Red, Orange, Blue and Green Lines

Breaking: Safety Circuits Fail on 4 out of 5 Metro Lines
Failures across railroad, trains have 'disappeared' since the fatal June 22 crash

The Washington Post has a doozy of a story, noting that safety circuits have failed on nearly all of the Metro lines in the period since last month's fatal crash.

System-wide secret 'one at a time' operation. In addition to spacing out and slowing down trains between Fort Totten and Takoma on the Red Line, trains have been forced to run one at at time and at 15 mph through areas near Greenbelt, Medical Center, Foggy Bottom and Courthouse.
In addition to the continuing failure of a track circuit at the accident site between the Takoma and Fort Totten stations, the agency found "anomalies" in six other track circuits, Metro rail chief Dave Kubicek said. In some instances, workers troubleshooting the problematic circuits have taken the unusual step of turning off those where problems could not be immediately fixed. Officials are closely monitoring circuits between Grosvenor and Medical Center on the Red Line and at Foggy Bottom on the Orange/Blue Line, Greenbelt on the Green Line and Court House on the Orange Line. The Greenbelt circuit was put back into service early Tuesday and the circuit at Court House was disabled Monday, officials said.
It gets even better:
When crews disable track circuits, they create "dark" stretches. That means trains have to proceed one at a time through the affected section of track at a maximum speed of 15 mph, which is creating delays. It also means that controllers in Metro's downtown operations center can't "see" the train as it moves through the affected area and that the safe operation of the train is entirely in the hands of the operator. Track circuits range in length from 400 to 500 feet up to about 1,000 feet, with shorter circuits closer to the stations.

A disabled track circuit would also not be able to detect a broken or cracked rail, which can cause a train to derail.

Some of the circuits were shut down last week after the agency intensified reviews of recorded track circuit data, conducting them after each rush period. It is unclear how long they will be disabled, Kubicek said.

In addition, The Post obtained internal agency documents that show at least six other non-functioning track circuits, including ones near stations at Clarendon, Farragut North, Metro Center and the Green Line platform at Fort Totten, which was not involved in the crash. Kubicek said that it was possible the additional problems were found as part of regularly scheduled maintenance and that he would look into them.
Despite this, Metro rail chief Dave Kubicek insists that the system is safe.

So what do we know? Well, we know a few things. One is that the system is failing across the board. I think we've had this feeling for a while, that it was likely a systemic failure. Now we have proof.

Second, John Catoe as recently as last week that all of the system's track circuits had been inspected and no problems were found outside of the stretch between Fort Totten and Takoma. According to the documents obtained by the Post, these additional circuit failures have had been found at least since July 11.

The system is completely broken, and Catoe openly lied. Additionally, if these problems have been detected on virtually every line, it is likely these failures were occurring long before the June 22 crash.

On that note, we also learn there has been no investigation into whether or not these circuits were failing prior to the crash. Whether or not that will happen remains to be seen.

Metro is in a difficult position, I realize, but they continue to butt heads with the NTSB and this whole thing is a complete circus. I continue to stand behind my call for Catoe's resignation, and at this point the WMATA Board should consider firing him. As recently as last week, WMATA launched a PR campaign explaining how they were feeling slighted by the NTSB for not being given a 'heads-up' before safety directives were announced.

Surprised? Maybe the NTSB caught wind of this nasty habit for WMATA to suppress information.

I maintain that the system was failing long before the June 22 crash. It began as a hunch, related to the earlier incident on the Blue/Orange Line, where coincidentally now a failure has been found in the track circuit. The system continues to fail. Metro has no idea what is causing it to fail. As recently as last week they admitted they had no idea what was causing it to fail.

They have a massive safety failure across the board and they don't know why. They also don't have a backup system. They have taken what's possibly just a 'theatre' solution of putting the Series 1000 cars in the middle of the train. They have no solution other than to complain about the NTSB and lie to the public.

And in case the Metro union is listening, we will be watching operators. Since, you know, our lives are double-for-sure in your hands as we barrel through dark twisting tunnels and there could be a train stopped 'directly ahead of us' that you don't know about.

So John Catoe and Metro, again, the same questions NO one can answer:
  • What were the conclusions of the investigation into the 2005 incident near Foggy Bottom?
  • What recommendations were made to avoid such an incident from repeating in the future?
  • Was there any evidence prior to June 22 that there were problems with the safety circuits?
  • Whose responsibility was it to monitor safety circuits? What was the inspection procedure?
  • How many failures have occurred since June 22?
  • Who was consulted in the decision to "belly" the Series 1000 cars? Does it actually improve safety?
It should be noted, that as a response, in a very poorly written "Real Deal," WMATA accuses the Washington Post of making "false claims" and using "gross exaggeration." And we all believe that, because of course, the WMATA PR office is going to be more truthful than the Washington Post. Clearly there are no ulterior motives there.

UPDATE: The Examiner has some information on the 2005 incident.
Metro's crash-alert system failed four years ago just as it did last month when nine people were killed and more than 70 were injured.
But in that case, the two train operators were able to stop their trains -- just barely -- to avoid crashing into a third stopped train. Recently retired train operator Larry P. Mitchell told The Examiner his train stopped on that June 2005 evening just 35 feet short of the standing train. A train behind him came to a stop just 12 feet before impact.
"I shudder to think of what might have happened," Mitchell said. "We were under the Potomac, three trains fully loaded. The casualty rate would have been enormous."
The Examiner also mentions that Metro blamed the 2005 near-miss on a failed communications cable that caused a 1,000 foot stretch of track to 'go dark.' Whether it was a failed cable or a failed sensor or a failed system, the 2005 incident should have at least demonstrated that there was a problem. It at least made it clear that there was no backup if the sensor system failed.

UPDATE X2: I'll be writing a more comprehensive analysis of all of this later in the week. It appears there has been a staggering failure at Metro to maintain any sort of culture of safety. It's difficult to identify the origins of this failure, but it likely leads back to many things, including funding problems. Whatever the cause, however, the end result is a system that is likely unsafe and an organizational structure that is resistant to change. Simply slapping a band-aid onto this problem does not get at the root of it, and will not prevent another accident from happening. This was failure at the most basic definition of the word. This was not simply the failure of a track circuit. This was across the board a failure of leadership, planning and imagination.


  1. A few years ago, DC WASA covered-up the fact that lead levels in the city's supply of drinking water was at an unsafe level.

    What does WASA have in common with WMATA? The demographics of its workforce. Same with the MPD (metro police dept.)

  2. What else do they have in common? They employ people who breathe air. Holy shit.

    This is a management problem. This is an organizational problem. This has nothing to do with the workforce and everything to do with the structure of the organization and its history.

  3. No. They are products of the DC public school system. They are the products of DC, period. They are not high achievers. They are not high performers. They expect something for nothing. These are the people who vote Barry whenever possible.

    Holy shit indeed.

  4. "Metro Picks L.A. Official, D.C. Native As Manager

    By Lena H. Sun
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, November 14, 2006; Page A01

    Metro's board of directors has chosen a bus expert who is the second-ranking transit official in Los Angeles to become the new general manager of the Washington region's rail-and-bus network, according to Metro officials."

    Washington Post Story

  5. AnonymousJuly 22, 2009

    Look at the severance package Metro gave Eugene White, who ran Metro before Catoe. Hell, look at the pension packages they give their other former employees.

    Metro is continuing to act in the same unsustainable way that killed the US car industry. They're all about entitlements in DC so I doubt this ever changes. Our lives will continue to be threatened while former Metro employees live the good life off of the public dime while doing absolutely nothing in exchange.

  6. AnonymousJuly 23, 2009

    Shit. Imagine if dc was a state?

  7. AnonymousJuly 24, 2009

    Who cares about safety? Affirmative action sinecures are at stake here, people!