WASHINGTON — Preliminary findings of the investigation into last week’s Metro derailment show tests of the radio communications system used in the tunnels are not occurring as often as they should because radio shop employees aren’t performing them, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Chairman and General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said Thursday.
“It was essentially an antenna problem [in the area of the collision],” WMATA Chief Safety Officer Pat Lavin said Thursday, explaining the source of the difficulties in communication between Metro’s rail operations control center and the train operator during the derailment, which occurred at 6:30 a.m. Jan. 15. “Employees adjusted the antenna after the incident.”
Lavin said investigators discovered both the antenna problem and that fact the testing took place less frequently than it should have.
“We found that although the requirement was to do this test weekly, they deviated and set up a biweekly schedule, and we found in some cases that test was occurring on a monthly basis, rather than a biweekly,” he said.
Lavin explained that the piece of track where the Red Line train derailed Jan. 15 showed signs of pre-existing damage.
Metro officials said the site of derailment was an eight-foot section of fractured rail. Investigators found a crack at the bottom of the broken rail which “appeared to show signs of oxidation.”
Metro employees’ testing of the rails near Farragut North Station before the derailment, including ultrasonic testing and track geometry testing, showed no signs of track problems, Wiedefeld said Jan. 15.
Lavin said he believes ultrasonic testing would not have been able to detect the crack because it was on the base of the rail. He outlined "next steps" for issues shown in the derailment, including corrosion testing on the bases of rails.
Results from the metallurgic testing of the section of rail have not come back yet, Lavin said.
The train derailed just outside Farragut North Station while carrying about 60 passengers during rush hour. No one was injured in the incident.
Jackie Jeter, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 president and a former train operator, said train operators have been reporting problems with radio communication for the past five years, and wondered why radio communication still has issues.
Lavin said the morning of Jan. 15 the Glenmont-bound train engaged a hard-brake not long after it departed Farragut North Station. The train operator initially reported seeing smoke in the tunnel to Metro’s center for rail operations control. Investigators determined the train had detected damage to its undercarriage, caused by the train derailing.
The tunnel fans activated one minute later, at 6:29 a.m. Metro Transit Police reported the derailment to the rail operations control center at about 6:45 a.m. Metro officials later determined the smoke was pulverized concrete from when the train derailed.
Lavin said wheels on the third and fourth cars hitting the crack led to the rail breaking, and then the last four of eight railcars derailed. The eighth car then returned to the rail, which answers the question as to why the eighth car was still on the track when first responders reported to the scene.
Speaking Thursday, Wiedefeld maintained that despite the issues highlighted by the derailment and investigation, the Metro system is not dangerous at all.
“I am confident in the safety of the system,” he said, “otherwise I would not run it.”