NTSB releases cause of July Metro train derailment

WASHINGTON — The National Transportation Safety Board says Metro’s ineffective inspection and maintenance practices are to blame for the derailment of a train near the East Falls Church Metro station in July.

The report out Thursday says the cause of the derailment was that the rails became too far apart because of the continued use of deteriorating crossties.

Deteriorated crossties at the location of the derailment. The gauge rods were added after the accident. (Courtesy NTSB)

Investigators found that the spacing between the rails was nearly two inches wider than acceptable by Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority standards. The distance between the tracks was 59 inches, but WMATA requires that track distance of more than 57 1/4 inches to be removed from service. When the distance between the tracks is too wide, derailment is likely, the report notes.

“WMATA has standards that address defective crossties; however, it was not apparent that
the track structure in the accident area was consistently maintained to those standards,” the report says.

In the accident area, many crossties under the tracks were seriously deteriorated, the report found. Of the 18 crossties in the 40 feet of track near the derailment, 16 were not in compliance with federal standards, investigators found. That meant about 400 inches of unsupported rail.

The July 29 derailment happened near the East Falls Church Metro station and shut down sections of the Orange and Silver lines for an entire weekend. About 63 passengers were on board the six-car passenger train at the time, and nobody was seriously hurt.

Crumbling crossties and track widening have long plagued the transit agency.

Degrading crossties that date back decades have been at least partially blamed for a number of speed restrictions and safety issues. Tracks that were too far apart also caused a derailment near the Smithsonian Station last year. In that case, investigators said track inspectors should have spotted the issue, and a track inspection vehicle’s warning was deleted.

Crosstie replacement is a major focus of the 24/7 track work.

The cause of the East Falls Church-area derailment had been suspected before, but was made official by the NTSB report.

Sarah Beth Hensley

Sarah Beth Hensley is the Digital News Director at WTOP. She has worked several different roles since she began with WTOP in 2013 and has contributed to award-winning stories and coverage on the website.

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