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Metro Was Warned Over Aging Fleet


To other news in Washington D.C. now, federal investigators have started to collect evidence in yesterday's fatal metro crash. The death toll now stands at nine, with more than 75 injured. Officials with the National Transportation Safety Board say they raised concerns three years ago with metro rail. They were worried about the safety of D.C.'s older train cars. One of those cars was involved in the crash.

NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER: The accident occurred during the evening rush hour, when trains can sometime get backed up waiting to enter a station. That's what happened to one train yesterday, which was sitting on the tracks when another came crashing in from behind, sending part of the second train up over the first. Debbie Hersman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the question now is why? She said investigators are looking at many factors.

Ms. DEBBIE HERSMAN (National Transportation Safety Board): They're going to be looking at any communication that might have been going on between the control center and the operators. And they're going to be looking at the automatic train operation versus the manual operation to determine what mode the train was at the time of the collision and if there had been any instructions to the operator.

FESSLER: D.C.'s metro rail generally runs automatically at rush hour, with a computerized system that's supposed to prevent from getting too close. But operators can also take control if something goes wrong. Hersman said investigators have confirmed that the train's automatic controls were on, but it also appears that the emergency brake was applied. She said the operator, killed in the crash, had just completed her training in March. Hersman said, unfortunately, unlike the stationary train, the moving one is an older model that does not carry a data recorder.

Ms. HERSMAN: And so we do not expect to get good recording data or information off of that train.

FESSLER: In fact, Hersman said, although it's too soon to tell what caused the accident, the NTSB raised concerns with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority in 2006 about the safety of the older trains and their ability to withstand a crash.

Ms. HERSMAN: We've recommended to WMATA to either retrofit those cars or to phase them out of the fleet. They have not been able to do that and our recommendation was not addressed. So it has been closed in an unacceptable status.

FESSLER: But metro's general manager John Catoe responded that the transit agency still believes the trains are safe.

Mr. JOHN CATOE (General Manager, Washington D.C. Metro Rail): Any car that strikes some other vehicle at a certain rate of speed and with a certain amount of weight, you're going to have severe damage and compromising of the integrity of the structure. Again this is something we will review.

FESSLER: He said changes will be made if necessary, although it will likely be years before the old cars can be replaced, which is something the transit system was already planning to do. Hersman says federal investigators will also be looking at the train's signaling system and track conditions, as well as the evacuation of survivors. One of those survivors was NPR editorial assistant Jasmine Gars, who was on the moving train. She said it was about 15 minutes before passengers were told what to do. And by then many were walking along the tracks, searching for help.

JASMINE GARS: We were scared that they hadn't cut off the electricity on the tracks. We were very worried about that. I was worried that another train would come.

FESSLER: She said everyone walked as quickly as they could, away from the accident scene. But, eventually had to turn around and go in the opposite direction to find help. Authorities say it will likely be days before they can determine the cause of the crash - the worst in the rail system's 33 year history.

Pam Fessler, NPR News Washington Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.