Trains to stay in manual mode for several years

According to this Washington Examiner article, Metro plans to have the train operators run in manual mode (often referred to as “mode 2, level 1”) for the foreseeable future.

I don’t even play an Automatic Train Control (ATC) engineer on TV, but this seems rather pointless to me.

First of all, my understanding is that the primary cause of the June 22, 2009, wreck was an ATC “engineer” (the one with a GED and little or no formal engineering education) disregarding the explicit instructions of a train control equipment mfr, and ordering the ATC department to replace the old (original) General Railway Signal (GRS) impedance bonds with new impedance bonds made by a different mfr, while leaving the GRS track circuit modules in place.

Mixing the original track circuit modules and the new bonds required that the transmit power of the modules be increased significantly which caused ‘parasitic oscillation’ — essentially a short circuit from the track circuit’s transmitter to the receiver in the train control room (TCR) that prevented the track circuit from detecting the train.

This letter from the NTSB to John Catoe further explains what happened.

As far as I know, even Metro realized mixing old and new equipment from different mfrs was a bad idea and stopped doing it immediately after the wreck.  Therefore, the cause of the problem has presumably been eliminated.

Now, that’s not to say that it is _impossible_ for this to happen with matched components from the same mfr, but it is highly unlikely.

In addition, ATC is now verifying (testing) each track circuit at three (3) locations — the transmit (Tx) end, the receive (Rx) end, and in the middle (half way between the impedance bonds) — rather than at the Tx bond only.  This more extensive testing alone would have prevented the wreck.

Also, according to the Examiner article:

“The National Transportation Safety Board also issued an urgent recommendation for Metro to install a continuous testing system that would alert officials in real time as soon as the safety system faltered.

Kubicek told The Examiner the agency developed a tool at the end of 2010 that could find such failures.”

Finally, even when running in manual mode, the operators still rely on the “Automatic Train Protection” (ATP) system.  If another failure like the one at Fort Totten in June, 2009, were to happen there’s a very good chance that operating in manual would not prevent a collision.  It _might_, on a straight stretch of track on a clear day (or night), if the operator is paying attention and realizes that his/her train is getting too close to the one ahead in time to avoid a collision —  but it will do absolutely no good at all in situations were sight distance is limited, which is much of the system.  In fact, that’s why the wreck at Fort Totten was so bad — Operator McMillan could not see the stopped train ahead of her until it was too late.

The ugly truth is this — Metro either trusts the ATC system or they don’t.  If they don’t, then the entire Metrorail system should be shut down until the problems can be corrected.  Either that or run all of the trains in manual mode with a system-wide speed limit of say 10 or 15 mph.  Claiming that operating at full civil design speed in manual mode is somehow safer than doing so in automatic is disingenuous at best.

The only reason I can think of to force the operators to run in manual mode is to attempt to get them to pay more attention.  There may be something to this.  That said, I don’t know about anyone else, but if I were operating a train (manual or automatic) I’d be damn sure to pay attention!  After all, in any collision it’s the operator that is most at risk.

There are cases where operating in manual mode makes sense, like inclement weather.  Ironically, the very time Metro should have allowed operators to run in manual (during a blizzard) they did not because Fady Basilly decreed that all trains shall be run in automatic, no exceptions.  Basilly’s order was the cause of the death of operator Callands in 1996, who died when his train slid past the platform at Shady Grove on icy tracks and slammed into a parked “gap train” north of the station.  Basilly took a job in Greece shortly thereafter.

So much of what Metro does seems to be for appearances.  I’m reminded of how they made a big deal out of placing the 1000 series cars in the middle (or “belly”) of trains.  What they didn’t tell anyone is that the 2000 and 3000 series cars are just as susceptible to ‘telescoping’ in collisions.  For confirmation, all anyone has to do is look at the results of the Dupont Circle wreck in 2004, or the wreck that killed Operator Callands in 1996.

In my opinion, Metro should go back to automatic operation and stop playing PR games.

This entry was posted in Management Follies, Safety Incidents. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Trains to stay in manual mode for several years

  1. Roger Bowles says:

    This posting is so true, and I agree 100%. Operating in Mode 2 in my observation is more dangerous than operating in Mode 1. First you have human fatigue to factor in, on the Blue and Red Lines the total run time is over a hour each way, operators are bound to get, for lack of a better term “tunnel vision” which increases the risk of a accident.

    As for the Fort Totten collision, I attended to NTSB hearing and the one key fact of the accident sequence was in my opinion glossed over. If train 214(struck train) had operated according to procedures in Mode 1; even with the loss of speed readouts in the “phantom” block, the train would most likely coasted through and shunted the following block, thus causing train 112 to receive reduced speed commands. While the collision might have still happened it wouldn’t have occurred at 45 MPH but at a lower speed and possibly saved some lives aboard the lead car.

    Like you said Mode 2 operation is for public show only…

    Best thing WMATA could do right now is: 1) Return to Mode 1 operations; 2) Begin creating consists of same mfg (Breda+Breda) (CAF+CAF) (Alstom+Alstom); 3) Remove the Rhors (1000 series) and utilize them for rush hour service, and as Gap trains, and schedule them to run back to back with positive separation between a Rhor and non-Rhor consist.

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