Metro: Red Line track inspected 5 days before train derailed

WASHINGTON — Nearly 30 minutes had passed before Metro confirmed that a Red Line train had left the tracks Monday morning — a derailment that occurred along a stretch of track that had been inspected just days before, a Metro official said.

Pat Lavin, Metro’s chief safety officer, also confirmed Tuesday that radio communication was spotty during the derailment response.

However it was not clear whether the problems with Metro’s radio system contributed to the delay in verifying the derailment.

Lavin said track inspectors last checked the stretch of track between the Farragut North and Metro Center station on Jan. 10. They also walked the stretch on Jan. 3 and 7.

Metro inspectors make a visual inspection of the tracks at least weekly looking for loose fasteners, obvious cracks in rails or rails that slid apart or other routine problems.

Past inspections, including an ultrasonic test and a check of the track’s alignment, last fall found no damage or discrepancies in the damaged stretch of rail. That portion of the rail line was not part of Metro’s recent SafeTrack repair program.

Investigators are still focusing on the damaged rail as the likely cause of the derailment and the shattered remnants will undergo a forensic analysis. However the eight-car train also will be inspected to rule out any mechanical failures that could have contributed, Lavin said.

“No system is immune from the hazard of a broken rail. It is infrequent, but not uncommon,” Lavin said.

Confirming a derailment

Lavin also said it took 27 minutes before the early morning derailment was confirmed. He said the train operator had to walk the entire length of the train and return before confirming the derailment.

Five of the cars remained on the track; three toward the rear however left the rails as the train approached the Metro Center Station. Ten feet of the track beneath the train had shattered, Metro officials said previously.

The decision was then made to evacuate all 63 on board by having them walk to the Metro Center platform, Lavin said.

A Metro Transit officer who was among those on the derailed train helped with the evacuation, checking on the passengers and escorting passengers to the lead car, he said.

Passengers were stranded on the train for nearly 1.5 hours before they arrived safely at the nearby station.

Radio problems

Metro staff also reported spotty radio coverage in the tunnel. A problem with aging components in the radio system will be fixed by Wednesday morning to address the coverage, Lavin said.

D.C. Fire and EMS personnel, using a separate radio system, had no problems, he said.

Radio problems have plagued the Metro system for years despite efforts to fix the coverage problems. The spotty coverage could leave train operators with limited options to communicate with Metro’s rail control center — such as walking to call boxes in the tunnels.

However, Lavin said because Metro tracks the position of each train, rail controllers would know if there was a problem even if the train operators couldn’t tell them that by radio.

Repairs stemming from the derailment continued through the Tuesday morning rush hour. Trains shared a single track around the derailment site leading to packed platforms and congested trains along the entire Red Line as commuters returned from a long holiday weekend.

Due to the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, ridership was lighter Monday at a time that would have otherwise been a busy weekday morning and fewer passengers were on the train as a result.

No injuries were reported.

WTOP’s Max Smith contributed to this report. 

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