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Safety of D.C. Rail Cars Questioned

The subway crash Monday that killed nine people here was the latest to involve safety concerns previously raised by accident investigators.

A 1970s-vintage train car was so heavily damaged in the impact that 50 feet of its 75-foot length collapsed, National Transportation Safety Board member Debbie Hersman said Tuesday.

In 2006, the NTSB had called on the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority to replace the trains after a similar accident crumpled a car in 2004, but the system had not done so, citing cost as one reason.

"It is a shame and they are going to have to answer the question why they didn't act on the NTSB recommendations," said Barry Sweedler, a former NTSB investigator who now operates a safety consulting firm.

Jim Graham, chairman of the transit system's board, said the agency is "aggressively" seeking to replace the older cars and will try to speed the process.

The accident that turned this city's modernist subway into a massive, bloody emergency scene is the latest in a series of subway and commuter rail accidents that involve issues on which the NTSB has long sought safety improvements:

-- After two people were killed in a derailment on a Metra train in Chicago on Sept. 17, 2005, the safety board urged the Federal Railroad Administration to establish rules to toughen commuter rail cars against collisions. The FRA last year told the NTSB that it would not be possible to further strengthen such rail cars.

-- The FRA for five years did not follow NTSB recommendations that it bar cellphone use by train employees. The agency reversed itself last year after 25 people died when a commuter train collided head-on with a freight train near Los Angeles on Sept. 12. The Metrolink engineer had been text messaging before the crash and ignored a red stop signal, the NTSB found.

-- The driver of a trolley car in Boston admitted that he was using a cellphone in the moments before he struck another trolley on May 8, the NTSB found. Nearly 50 people were injured. The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority instituted a cellphone ban after the accident.

In Monday's crash, Jeanice McMillan, the operator of the train that rear-ended a second train that was stopped, had apparently applied emergency brakes before the impact, Hersman said. McMillan, 42, died in the wreck.

As was normal during rush hour, the train was supposed to stop automatically before getting near another train, Hersman said.

The NTSB has requested McMillan's cellphone records, which is standard in accident investigations.

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