A breakdown of safety management throughout the D.C.-area transit system preceded the Metrorail crash last summer that killed nine people, a federal official said Tuesday.
Investigators have said since weeks after the crash that a signaling system's failure to detect a stopped train was the likely cause of the crash. On Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board chairwoman said the board's investigation has revealed that safety problems in the system went much further.
"Metro was on a collision course long before this accident," Chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman said in her opening statements at a meeting on the June 2009 crash. "As our report shows, this was not the first time Metro's safety system was compromised."
Previous accidents, some of which killed employees, foreshadowed the deadly crash.
"Because the necessary preventive measures were not taken, the only question was when would Metro have another accident — and of what magnitude," Hersman said.
The board will hear investigators' findings and vote on the probable cause of the accident. It will also issue recommendations — likely sweeping and costly — on how to avoid similar disasters.
Eight passengers and a train operator were killed and dozens injured when a train heading into downtown Washington from the Maryland suburbs during the evening rush struck a second train stopped before the Fort Totten station.
The NTSB doesn't have the power to enforce its recommendations, but a failure by Metro to comply with them could cause federal and state governments to curtail the transit agency's funding. The board wields similar influence over transit agencies around the country.
Metro has been working to comply with recommendations the NTSB made in the months after the crash and announced last week that it is putting aside $30 million over three years to carry out whatever recommendations come out of Tuesday's meeting. That amount represents a fraction of what Metro is spending on overall upgrades.
If Metro's track circuits — simple electronic devices meant to detect stopped trains on the tracks — had been working properly, the system would have automatically slowed the approaching train. But the failure of the circuit meant that the driver of the approaching train was receiving messages telling her she could proceed at 55 mph
According to Jim Southworth, NTSB's railroad chief, the driver of the striking train applied the emergency brakes three seconds after she first could see the train ahead. The brakes worked, but only slowed the train from 55 mph to 44 mph at the time of impact.
Weeks after the crash, the NTSB urged Metro to upgrade its train control system, saying daily reviews of the signaling system were not sufficient. A post-crash review found that track circuits failed periodically in the days before the crash.
Metro says it now evaluates track circuit performance twice a day, has stopped mixing train control components from different manufacturers and established a new test to find circuits susceptible to problems. Immediately after the crash, Metro switched to manual operation of trains instead of automatic, a change that remains in effect.
This was not Metro's only deadly accident in recent years. Two Metro workers were crushed to death on tracks in January when a maintenance truck backed into them. Last year, two more Metro workers were killed in separate incidents. There was also a close call in December when safety inspectors were nearly hit.
Carolyn Jenkins of Washington, whose daughter Veronica Dubose was killed in the crash, said she came to Tuesday's hearing seeking closure. Jenkins now cares for her two grandchildren, ages 2 and 8.
"I want to hear what really happened. I want to hear the truth," Jenkins said. "I want everyone to stop pointing fingers."
Associated Press writers Matthew Barakat, Lauren Sausser, Jessica Gresko and Ben Nuckols contributed to this report.