NTSB animation of the Red Line crash.

The National Transportation Safety Board is issuing their official findings from the June 2009 Red Line crash today. In this morning’s session, they criticized WMATA officials, the agency’s safety culture, and even the Board and Congress in the strongest terms.

They identify track circuit failures as the cause of the crash, and furthermore, these “parasitic oscillations” remain in 290 circuits. One circuit appears to have been failing consistently since 1998.

WMATA had announced they couldn’t reproduce the problem, but according to the NTSB, Metro tested the circuit improperly. Had they done so, they would have seen the circuit fail to detect trains.

The NTSB created an animation showing the crash and the track failures. The NTSB also criticized WMATA’s decision to “belly” the 1000 series cars by moving them to the centers of trains, saying there hadn’t been any “technical assessment” to determine whether this was actually safe. (Is this analogous to the decisions against longitudinal seating, also based on vague safety assertions?) They reiterated their recommendation to replace the 1000 series cars, which WMATA will do with the Kawasaki order which, as of this morning, is now cleared to go forward. The NTSB said the 2000 and 3000 series cars are also susceptible to telescoping in a crash, but it’s unclear what WMATA can do about it unless the federal government is interested in coming up with billions more to replace them. DCist has a good summary of this morning’s session. The meeting is now on break for lunch until 12:30. I will be tweeting the afternoon session @ggwash and will post about it again later. Update: Steven Yates made a good point I also wanted to make but wanted to get the post out quickly:

“When safety is more important than schedules, their lessons will have been learned,” said NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman. Placing aside for the moment how well WMATA keeps to schedules, I think this is flawed thinking. As we’ve discussed before, a decrease in the quality and reliability in regards to speedy transit will result in more people driving, which is much more dangerous than taking Metro.
Maybe they’ll talk about this later, but there seems again to be no comparison of Metro safety to other modes. Saying the 2000 and 3000 series are not so safe is sure to make some riders nervous. It’d be great if those cars were more crash-proof, but is riding in them really something to avoid compared to driving? The NTSB tends to focus on just how to improve the particular mode they’re investigating at the time, but that carries problems. If they’re going to make strong statements about the importance of safety, they should put it in some context rather than simply scaring people away from Metro.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.