Federal Report Finds That DC Subway Safety Hasn’t Improved

By BEN NUCKOLS | May 6, 2016

Washington’s subway system did not make meaningful safety improvements between a deadly collision in 2009 and a fatal fire in 2015, and some of the safety problems date back to the system’s first fatal accident in 1982, federal investigators said Tuesday.

The National Transportation Safety Board was meeting to determine what caused the fire that led to the most recent death on the Metro system in January 2015. One passenger was killed and dozens more were sickened when a train filled with smoke and became stuck inside a downtown Washington tunnel.

NTSB investigators have found that the third-rail power cables were improperly installed at the site of the electrical malfunction that led to the fire. The cables were also damaged by repeated water leaks and other contaminants, the NTSB found.

The previous fatal accident, the worst in the Metro system’s history, was a crash between two trains in 2009 that killed nine people. The board made several recommendations to Metro after that crash and previous fatal accidents, but NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said that its warnings were not heeded.

“Little or no progress has been made toward building a meaningful safety culture,” Hart said, later adding: “When the NTSB finds itself issuing a continuous stream of accident reports to address the basic safety management of a single transit rail system, something is fundamentally flawed. Here, that something is safety oversight.”

Most of the facts surrounding the 2015 accident have already been made public by the NTSB. One disturbing detail that emerged at Tuesday’s meeting, however, was that Metro lacked any way to pinpoint the location of smoke or fire in the system’s tunnels and that trains full of passengers were routinely sent into tunnels to figure out where smoke was coming from. That practice has been discontinued and trains are now offloaded before operators move them into tunnels with possible smoke or fire, Metro general manager Paul Wiedefeld said Tuesday.

“This just seems reprehensible,” said Bella Dinh-Zarr, the board’s vice chairman. “The use of inadequately trained (Metro) employees and passengers as essentially canaries in the tunnel, that seems a very dangerous and risky practice.”

The NTSB also faulted the District of Columbia fire department and its 911 call center for their lack of preparation for mass-casualty incidents and their poor communication on the day of the fire, which led to delays in reaching passengers on board the stalled, smoke-filled train. It took firefighters more than 30 minutes to get to the train.

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