Juxtaposition: Red line crashes in DC


Red Line crash, June 22, 2009, between Takoma Park and Fort Totten stations
Photo from Fox5 News, via DCist

As many of you already know, DC's Red Line suffered a fatal crash this evening during rush hour. One train had stopped. A second train behind it failed to stop, overtook the first train, and ran up on top of it, shearing off the front end of the first car and crushing the last car of the first train underneath. It is still totally unclear how or why this happened.

The second train's driver is deceased, as are at least five others (the situation is being updated as I write this). About 70 people were injured. Fortunately, the trains were inbound - coming downtown to pick up commuters - so they were fairly lightly loaded. During the evening rush hour, one expects outbound Red Line trains to be packed with hundreds of commuters. I commute on the Red Line every day, and I am still in some shock at how many more injuries there could have been if the trains had been outbound shortly after 5pm (or inbound in the morning).

This is not the first accident on DC's Red Line. Although WMATA actually has a fairly good safety record, in 2004 there was a strikingly similar accident in which one train rode up on top of a second.


Red Line crash, November 4, 2004, at Woodley Park Zoo station
photo by Michel Ducille, Washington Post, 2004


Red Line crash, November 4, 2004, at Woodley Park Zoo station
photo by Gerald Martineau, Washington Post, 2004

In that case, a parked train began rolling backward down a grade and crashed into a train parked in the Woodley Park Zoo station. It's remarkable how similar the images of that crash are to the images of today's crash; basically, the main difference is that the 2004 crash was underground, in a station, while today's crash was outside.

My heart goes out to my fellow Red Line passengers and to the drivers of the red line trains. I know I must have taken trains with the driver who passed away many times. To the families of the victims, many people are thinking about you and your loved ones tonight. We are so very sorry.

Update: The Washington Post is now saying that 9 people lost their lives in yesterday's wreck. (Earlier today the total went back to seven, but now seems to be at nine again.) In addition, they have a new photo gallery that more clearly shows the damage to the trains. You can see in these new photos that most of the damage was confined to the top car - instead of squishing the car below it, its floor was ripped out, and the sides "telescoped" around the newer train in front/underneath. This also suggests why the top car stayed aligned with the train underneath, instead of derailing as one might intuitively expect: it was partially wrapped around the car underneath it, which was still on the rails.

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My friend just called me saying that she was supposed to be on that train. However, she left her coat in her apartment, so she had to return. Not even realizing that it was a thing that has saved her from the incident.

The similarity between the two crashes was one of the first things that occurred to me when I saw the news reports last night. When I lived in DC the Red Line was my main train.

I'll bet money that a large part of the cause of the crash was that at least one of the operators was in a hurry to get home. Most union agreements allow workers to go home when their route is done. So if they get back to the station 20 minutes early, well they get off early. At every workplace people are in a hurry at the end of the day. Paying people to rush so they can leave early it is just asking for trouble. The bus operators have killed dozens of people for the same reason.

Well, meto, the problem with that theory is that - unlike buses - metro trains at rush hour don't have more than a couple minutes' space between them. There is literally 1-2 minutes between consecutive trains. You can't hurry any faster than that, because you can't pass the train ahead of you. So there isn't much of an incentive for train drivers in a metro to bunch up one after the other. They can't cut ahead in line, so they can't get off early enough to justify rushing.

Now, psychologically, drivers near the end of their shifts may want to hurry anyway - but it would not be based on a rational outcome like thinking they can get off 20 minutes early.