Emergency brake activated before crash


WASHINGTON – The operator of the Metro train that slammed into a stationary train in front of it apparently had activated the emergency brake in a failed effort to stop before the deadly accident, federal officials said Tuesday, as they searched for the cause of Monday’s Red Line wreck that killed nine and injured 80.

Debbie Hersman of the National Transportation Safety Board said the emergency brake, known as the “mushroom,” was depressed, and the steel rails showed evidence that the brakes were engaged. Investigators also said the striking train was in automatic mode, which means onboard computers should have controlled its speed and stopped it before it got too close to the stationary train.

In addition, Metro sources said, the first two cars of that train were two months overdue for scheduled maintenance of some braking components.

Taken together, experts say these facts point to several possible scenarios: the operator activated the brake too late; the computers that are supposed to stop a train from getting too close to another train faltered; the train’s brakes failed; or some combination of those. Some passengers on the striking train have said that they never felt the train slow down.

A team of NTSB investigators painstakingly searched through the tangled heap of metal on the tracks just north of the Fort Totten Station in northeast Washington. They were examining everything: the condition of the trains, track and signals; the actions of the operator and her downtown supervisors; and the computers that control train movement and are supposed to automatically prevent crashes. Investigators will also look at maintenance work performed this month on the computerized train control system along the stretch of track where the crash took place.

Officials began to remove the cars from the trains Tuesday and plan to try to experiment with similar trains to determine approximate speed and stopping distance, Hersman said.

The crash, the force of which vaulted the striking train atop the train it rammed, occurred on a curve where the speed limit is 59 mph, Hersman said.

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