Could DC Metro Crash Happen Here?

Washington, DC Metro officials are still trying to figure out exactly what caused Monday’s train crash that killed nine people and injured numerous others. One train smashed into the rear of another train that stopped ahead of it, according to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

It could be months before investigators have all the facts but there is speculation that human error, equipment failure or signal malfunction could be the cause. As officials try to figure out the cause, people here are asking if a crash like that could happen on a SEPTA or PATCO train.

It is comforting to know that SEPTA subway trains and trolleys are equipped with automatic systems designed to prevent that kind of crash but that was the case for DC Metro trains, as well.

"Without knowing the cause of the accident, it's hard to know if it could happen here," Jeffrey Knueppel, assistant general manager and chief engineer at SEPTA told the Inquirer.

"It's a horrible situation," Knueppel said. "Systems are designed to prevent something like this from happening. There is supposed to be a space that a train can't come into or shouldn't come into."

SEPTA had spent more than $200 million over the last decade "making sure our signal and control systems are as modern and safe as they can be" according to Knueppel.

SEPTA’s Regional Rail system is most vulnerable to operator error. Forty percent of the fleet does not yet have automatic train control.

A federally mandated deadline is forcing SEPTA to upgrade its entire rail network to a higher level of control by 2015.  Once installed the system will automatically stop trains that violate spacing and speed regulations.

The federal government established this law following a 2008 train crash in Los Angeles that killed 25 people. An investigation discovered that the Metrolink’s engineer was using his cell phone when the train missed a signal and collided with a Union Pacific freight train.

As for PATCO, their High Speed Line, which operates between Philadelphia and South Jersey, has automatic anti-collision systems.

In March 2006, the NTSB sounded an alarm about older subway cars after one of the cars in DC’s Metro train system collapsed. 

DC Metro and SEPTA are among the seven largest transit systems in the nation.  Both systems depend on older cars for more than one-third of their fleet, according to a federal study.

The moving train in Monday's crash was more than 30-years-old, officials said.

SEPTA’s nearly 500 train cars were built between 1963 and 1989, according to assistant general manager Luther Diggs.

SEPTA is buying 120 new Silverliner rail cars to replace its oldest cars. Some of those trains will be in service next May. The remainder will be in place by February or March 2011.

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