Dec 6, 2004
On November 3, a Washington D.C. Metro train rolled back down a slope and collided with another train, carrying about 70 people. Twenty people were injured. A bigger disaster, with almost certain deaths, was avoided only because there were no passengers on the train that rolled down, and because an operator on the second train happened to see the train rolling and got passengers off in time.
Immediately after the crash, the authorities acted like there was no reason to suspect a failure of the system. They sent in the operator of the train that had rolled down for drug testing, implying that he was suspected of causing the incident.
It took three weeks for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), however, to acknowledge the real reason for the crash. It turned out that only 70 of Metro's 940 trains had a computerized system designed to stop them from rolling back when operated manually. The train that rolled back was not one of those, and management had ordered it to be operated manually that day. The operator had done his part and tried to stop the rollback, by applying forward power first, and then the breaks. But, as the NTSB found, that procedure worked only if the train was rolling back at a speed of 2 mph or less, that is, only for seconds in the very beginning of the rollback. Furthermore, Metro had never given any of this information to its operators and it hadn't trained them on the proper management of a rollback.
But that's not all. After a 1996 crash that caused deaths, the NTSB told Metro it should reinforce the structure of its rail cars to reduce injuries in future crashes. Metro did nothing, saying that it would be too expensive to do that.
Effectively, the NTSB has now found that this crash was avoidable. Will Metro management be held responsible for all the injuries?
It remains to be seen. After all, the NTSB let them off the hook before.