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Washington Subway Derailment Spurs Warning for Other Cities

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 10/18/2021 Alan Levin
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(Bloomberg) -- A flaw with the wheels that has been linked to the derailment of a Washington, D.C., area subway train last week was found on dozens of other cars and investigators urged transit systems with similar equipment across the U.S. to conduct urgent inspections. 

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The Oct. 12 incident in Virginia on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority system could have been “catastrophic,” National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Jennifer Homendy said at a briefing in Washington Monday. 

A total of 39 similar flaws -- in which the wheels move apart from each other along the axle -- have been found this year on WMATA rail cars, including 21 on Friday in inspections after the accident, she said. 

“I would say if you are a transit agency operating in the United States and you are listening, make sure you are checking your cars as well,” she said. 

The NTSB hasn’t yet issued a formal call for inspections at other rail systems, but Homendy said the agency was considering issuing an urgent recommendation. The so-called series 7000 cars were made by Kawasaki Rail Car Inc., according to NTSB. 

It’s unclear whether the issue could create a safety issue at other transit systems. The 7000-series cars were made specifically for WMATA by Kawasaki to replace older cars, according to the company’s website. 

Officials at the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority, PATH in New Jersey and Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority in greater Philadelphia all said late Monday that they don’t believe their cars have similar safety issues. All of them use rail cars also made by Kawasaki. 

Washington’s cars are “different from the MTA’s in design and specifications across all agencies including New York City Transit, Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North Railroad,” Eugene Resnick, an MTA spokesperson, said in an email.

SEPTA’s Kawasaki-built cars were built in the early 1980s and use different parts, spokesman Andrew Busch said.  


Video: Investigation into derailment of train heading to Seattle underway (KING-TV Seattle)

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“Based on the information we’ve seen so far, it doesn’t appear that this issue will affect our fleet or our service but we will continue to review,” Scott Ladd, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, said regarding PATH trains. 

Kawasaki didn’t respond to requests for comment on whether the wheels on its other cars may have a similar design. The Federal Transit Administration, which has authority over such rail systems, also didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“As Metro continues to work closely with the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission and NTSB and more information develops, we will update the public about service for the remainder of this week,” WMATA said in a statement posted on its website Sunday. 

WMATA on Sunday took all 7000-series cars out of service, representing almost 60% of the fleet, in the wake of the derailment in a tunnel near Arlington National Cemetery. The system was operating on a drastically reduced schedule Monday.

Investigators found evidence that the train involved in the accident had had at least two other minor derailments earlier on the same day. 

Wheels on the trains were apparently moving outward so that they became wider than the tracks, according to NTSB. 

WMATA had discovered similar issues with wheels on its trains going back to 2017, Homendy said. After discovering a handful of such cases in the years since, the numbers jumped to 18 this year prior to the accident. 

It’s extremely unusual for railroad wheels have such a flaw, said Russell Quimby, a consultant who formerly worked as an NTSB rail investigator. Typically, the large steel wheels are pressed onto an axle and should stay in place for thousands of miles of use, Quimby said.

“This is something that should not ever happen,” he said. 

The NTSB will want to determine whether there was a flaw in how the wheels were built or if some kind of maintenance on them afterward played a role, he said.

“We are fortunate that no fatalities or serious injuries occurred as a result of any of these derailments, but the potential for fatalities and serious injures was significant,” Homendy said. “This could have resulted in a catastrophic event, which is why we went and why it’s important that we identify these safety issues in advance so we can protect public safety.”

(Updates with other rail systems’ comments from seventh paragraph.)

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