Deadliest Incident in MetroRail History

At 5:00 p.m. today, two Red Line MetroRail trains collided in Washington, DC, killing at least six. This has been the deadliest incident in the history of the Metro transit system.

First and foremost, my prayers and sympathies for the dead and injured, and their families and friends.

Second, why is Metro (WMATA) lying/misrepresenting the incident in its service announcements? Two trains are stacked on top of each other after a catastrophic collision, and more than three hours later Metro has this to say:

Disruption at Fort Totten. Trains are turning back at Rhode Island Ave & Silver Spring due to a train experiencing mechanical difficulties outside of Ft. Totten. Shuttle service has been established.

Um . . . a train experiencing MECHANICAL DIFFICULTIES?!?! This is the official notice from Metro regarding two trains in a very serious, deadly collision? Long-time Metro riders have come to expect this kind of euphemistic non-explanation, but there’s still no excuse for it. I’m surprised they don’t say there’s a ’12 minute delay on the Red Line’, since ’12 minute delay’ usually means a complete shutdown of the line and hours of waiting to get to your destination.

Finally, I’m perplexed about how this incident occurred. One train was stopped, and the second train rear-ended it at apparently high speed. The MetroRail system, however, has a number of automatic protections to prevent exactly this kind of accident.

First, the system is usually operating using an Automatic Train Control (ATC) system, and when it’s in automatic mode the system automatically keeps trains separated. In automatic mode, the train operator basically just keeps an eye on what’s happening and controls the doors in the stations. Operators can, however, put their trains in manual mode (and, for various reasons, it’s common for trains to be manually controlled).

But even in manual mode, MetroRail has a separate Automatic Train Protection (ATP) system. Theoretically, a train simply cannot ram another train because the ATP system would stop a train before entering an occupied block of rail, whether it’s in manual mode or in ATC mode.

It’s way too early to make any definitive determination of what happened, but it seems strange that both the automatic protection systems and a human operator would permit this to happen, especially given that this is an above-ground section of track with good visibility on a clear, sunny day.

There have been a handful of Metro collisions in the past, but each involved collisions between one in-service and one out-of-service train. These were usually due to egregious operator error or brake failure in adverse weather conditions). One deadly incident in 1982 was due to a track problem causing a derailment in a tunnel. This is first time there has been a collision between two in-service trains in Metro history.

UPDATE 9:52pm: Metro updated their disruption message around 9:30 p.m., but they still won’t call this a collision/accident. Now they’re calling it a ‘police situation’, which is more accurate but still a lie:

Disruption at Fort Totten. Trains are turning back at Brookland-CUA & Silver Spring due to a police situation outside of Fort Totten station. Shuttle bus service has been established.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.