Monday, June 4, 2012

Bad Radios Strike Again

Metro's dysfunctional radio system contributed to the death of two Metro workers and the derailment of a train, according to National Transportation Safety Board reports released Friday.

In the death of two Automatic Train Control workers on Jan. 26, 2010, the NTSB concluded the following:
Had the Operations Control Center (OCC) operators provided the crew of striking hi-rail vehicle 15802 with the cell phone number of the first automatic train control technician and instructions to coordinate their work, the accident could have been prevented.
The cell phone number the NTSB refers to is a PERSONAL cell phone number, sources said.

Sources within Metro say that in many cases, the PERSONAL cell phones are the primary means of communications because the radio system is so bad.

Metro has a multimillion dollar radio system that doesn't work, and they are depending on personal cell phone coverage, in many cases, for the safety of their employees. That had disastrous results that January night at Rockville.

Screwed up radios also played a role in the Farragut North derailment, according to the NTSB, which concluded "the probable cause of the accident was the train operator's failure to follow proper operating procedures, which resulted in her operating the train past a red signal and over the interconnected derail."

But when you read the details, poor communications surely added significantly to a very stressful situation in which an operator, who'd been out on worker's comp for nine years, had their decisions clouded by spotty communications with OCC.

Here's what the NTSB had to say:
The operator of train 641 stopped the train and called the OCC for permission to proceed, as required. However, the operator experienced difficulty communicating with the OCC; she reportedly was "calling and calling and calling." Moreover, the train operator reported that she heard the OCC controller respond to train 156, but the radio messages were garbled and she could not understand the instructions.
The bottom line:
Radio records show communications between the OCC controllers and various train operators. Radio transmissions from train 156 to the OCC were weak and garbled at times. The operator of train 156 had a train-mounted radio and a portable radio; neither radio was reported to be malfunctioning.
According to several sources within Metro, the radio problems are only getting worse.

Time and time again, EVERY SINGLE Metro worker I talk to says the radios (here, here and here) cause or compound all the delays, accidents--everything. They can't communicate among themselves, which makes it hard to communicate with us.

Several employees have said Metro knows the radios are wired incorrectly yet management does nothing about it. Specifically, the wires don't have the capacity to handle the information passing through them.

"It's like trying to suck a golf ball through a garden hose," said one employee.

Said another, "It doesn't make sense to rely on personal cell phones at critical times. How's your personal cell phone coverage in Metro? I bet it's better than Metro's radios. That's not comforting to me."

There's so much in these reports to latch onto, and I recommend anyone with an interest in Metro read them.

For example, in the $9 million collision at the West Falls Church rail yard, the NTSB concluded "the failure of the train operator to control the movement of his train as it approached the standing train, possibly due to his fatigue" was the cause.

Amazingly, despite two killed and millions of dollars in damage, the NTSB issued no recommendations for Metro despite compelling evidence that the faulty radios contributed to two of the three incidents.

Another little tidbit about the reports that may only be of interest to me as a journalist is the timing of their release. As anyone knows, if you want to release bad news, do it on a Friday afternoon. Why the NTSB would, in essence, help Metro by doing that I couldn't say.

Think about that next time you ride.

As the bodies and wreckage pile up, there's still no one watching Metro. Quite the contrary, by issuing damning reports on a Friday afternoon, the NTSB may actually be enabling Metro by shielding it from the spotlight.

Other items:
Metro blocked, locked emergency exits (Examiner)
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