D.c. Metro's Ills To Persist

Slower, Jerkier Rides Are Result Of Change To Manual Operation

August 19, 2009|By James Hohmann | James Hohmann,The Washington Post

Metrorail passengers frustrated with jerkier rides and longer waits for trains after June's Red Line crash can expect those irritations to continue indefinitely as operators run every train in the system manually.

Metro does not have precise data on how much slower the system is moving, but spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said trains controlled by operators tend to spend more time at station platforms and take extra time to accelerate than do trains run by computers.

"You could lose a couple of minutes from one end [of a line] to the other," Farbstein said. "If it's 10 seconds between each station, it does add up."

In the weeks since the June 22 crash, in which nine people were killed and 80 injured, top Metro officials have prescribed continuous manual operation as a safety precaution. But federal investigators have said the automatic control system designed to prevent crashes can be problematic regardless of whether the subway trains are operating under manual or automatic control.

The National Transportation Safety Board has said that it appears that Metro's automatic control system failed to detect a stopped train June 22 and that an approaching train did not receive a command to stop on the track between the Takoma and Fort Totten stations.

Manual control brings with it another set of problems. "Operating a train is a very repetitive task," said Elisa M. Nichols, a transit system safety consultant in Kensington. "You do the same thing all the time. There's complacency. [The operator] could be tired. He could be preoccupied. He could be taking medication. ... There is nothing inherently unsafe about operating in manual mode, but you introduce more risk."

Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. reiterated last week that trains will not run in automatic again until he is satisfied that "all the aspects of what occurred on June 22 have been corrected."

That might take years. The NTSB likely is months away from a final report on the accident's cause, and making fixes that federal investigators have recommended, such as replacing the oldest cars in the fleet with more-crashworthy ones, would cost hundreds of millions of dollars that Metro doesn't have.

In July, the NTSB urged Metro to install a real-time, continuous backup for the control system. Metro began talks with vendors after the recommendation but does not have an estimate for what such a system would cost or how long it would take to install.

Washington Post staff writer Lena H. Sun contributed to this article.

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