Subway crash blamed on workers' lapses

Maintenance truck, train collided, injuring 11

February 01, 2003|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Transit Administration blamed lax control room employees yesterday for allowing a subway train to go down a section of track that was supposed to be closed, leading to a collision with a maintenance truck Sunday that sent 11 people to hospitals with minor injuries.

The employees failed to answer the maintenance crew's request to leave the tunnel where it was working, then failed to send a signal to the train operator to use a different track, said MTA spokeswoman Suzanne Bond.

"Without that signal to tell the operator what was happening in the tunnel ahead of her, she continued into what was a work zone," Bond said. "You had a signal telling a train to keep coming and a lack of verbal communication telling the work truck to move out."

The crash occurred at 10 a.m. Sunday in a tunnel near the State Center subway station downtown. It was the first Metro subway crash in more than 20 years, officials said.

The maintenance truck, which travels on the rails using steel wheels, had finished its work on the track by 9:20 a.m. and crew members had asked the control room for permission to leave. Forty minutes later, the control room had not responded, Bond said.

While the truck was on the track, eastbound trains were being diverted to the westbound tunnel. But when Train No. 4 entered the eastbound tunnel shortly before 10 a.m., the control room employees failed to signal the train operator to switch to the westbound tunnel.

Two employees were in the control room at the time. One had been a control room operator since 1991, the other since 1998. Bond could not say why they failed to respond to the work truck's request or to signal the train to switch tracks. Drug and alcohol abuse have been ruled out, she said.

The investigation, conducted by the MTA and the state Department of Transportation, concluded that the train operator and the maintenance workers were following proper procedures and were not at fault. The MTA estimated property damage from the collision at $50,000 to $100,000.

The MTA has not decided whether the control room employees will be disciplined. Bond said the agency will review standard operating procedures with all control room workers and will require them to take a weeklong recertification course.

Control room employees are often longtime MTA employees who have worked their way up through the agency. When they join the control room staff, they go through a yearlong apprenticeship program, but there is not a formal training course. The two employees on duty at the time of the crash are veterans with good records, Bond said.

MTA Administrator Robert L. Smith said in a statement yesterday that the agency is "committed to using all resources available to us to prevent a similar situation from occurring again."

The subway, which runs from Owings Mills to Johns Hopkins Hospital, carries about 50,000 riders daily.

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