MTA keeps tabs on D.C. crash inquiry
Local transit officials are closely monitoring the investigation of Monday’s deadly train wreck in Washington, D.C., because major parts of Los Angeles’ subway rely on an automated train control system similar to the one targeted for scrutiny by investigators.
“There is a lot of similarity between the system employed [in Washington] and the system we have on the Metro Red Line and Purple Line,” said Michael Harris Gifford, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s chief engineer.
“If something was to transpire of concern, we want to know as quickly as possible so we can verify whether or not we have same or similar equipment on our system.”
Los Angeles and Washington use what are designed to be fail-safe, computerized train control and separation systems provided by Alstom Signaling Inc., a subsidiary of a French conglomerate.
The National Transportation Safety Board intensified its focus on the control system Wednesday after investigators found what they described only as an “anomaly” in part of the network -- a track signal circuit near the site of the crash. “We’re looking closely at that to try to understand what was going on there,” said NTSB board member Deborah Hersman.
Maintenance work had been performed on the suspicious circuit earlier this month, she said.
Investigators stress that they are beginning their probe and do not yet know what caused the accident. They are looking at a variety of potential contributing factors. An Alstom Signaling spokeswoman did not return a call seeking comment.
Nine people died and dozens were injured when one Washington Metro train slammed into the rear of another that was stopped. It is the deadliest wreck in the Washington transit system’s history and the kind of accident automated control systems are supposed to prevent.
The automated system was on at the time of the crash, Hersman said. The train operator, who was killed, apparently applied the emergency brake and tried to stop.
Los Angeles MTA officials were making inquiries to learn more. But they said they have received no information suggesting any potential problems with the local subway system.
Mike Cannell, the subway’s general manager, said he was seeking guidance from the NTSB, Washington transit officials and the control system manufacturer.
“We are doing everything . . . to find out the details,” he said. In Washington, the NTSB’s Hersman acknowledged other transit systems were concerned and making inquiries. Emergency notices will be issued, she said, if potentially dangerous operating or equipment problems are discovered that could affect other cities.
The chance that a supposedly fail-safe crash prevention system -- a technology rail safety advocates have pushed for years -- contributed to a major collision has set the rail transportation community buzzing.
Safety expert Barry Sweedler, a former NTSB investigator, is one of those who has pushed for greater use of high-tech train control systems, including on Southern California’s Metrolink commuter railroad. “It’s very troubling to me as to what happened, as to why this was able to occur,” he said. “It’s just mind-boggling.”
Officials at Metrolink, which is upgrading its train control equipment after last year’s head-on crash in Chatsworth that killed 25, also are tracking the Washington investigation closely. The five-county commuter rail system is in the midst of installing an automatic train stopping system at dozens of locations and has promised a more sophisticated, $200-million computerized crash avoidance system by 2012.