9 Dead in DC Metro Crash

Investigators and officials continue to work at the scene of a rush-hour collision between two Metro transit trains in northeast Washington, D.C., Tuesday morning, June 23, 2009. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Investigators and officials continue to work at the scene of a rush-hour collision between two Metro transit trains in northeast Washington, D.C., Tuesday morning, June 23, 2009. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

At least nine people have died and dozens injured in a crash of two Red Line trains on Washington, DC’s Metro subway, by far the deadliest in the system’s history.  The investigation is still ongoing but operator error is suspected.


“This is a tragedy beyond belief,” Metro General Manager John Catoe said on WTOP. “My heart is heavy with the weight of this grief.”

An inbound Metro train smashed into the back of another at the height of the Monday evening rush hour, killing at least nine people and injuring dozens on the Red Line.

“We are still removing remains from the train,” Catoe says. “This is still a recovery effort.” “Our teams have been working through the night, and we’re trying to make sure we document and collect all of the perishable evidence,” National Transportation Safety Board member Debbie Hersman tells WTOP.


Experts familiar with Metro’s operations focused last night on a failure of the signal system and operator error as likely causes of yesterday’s fatal Red Line crash.

These systems were supposed to make yesterday’s crash impossible. Metro was designed with a fail-safe computerized signal system that is supposed to prevent trains from colliding. The agency’s trains are run by onboard computers that control speed and braking. Another electronic system detects the position of trains to maintain a safe distance between them. If they get too close, the computers automatically apply the brakes, stopping the trains.

A system failure occurred in June 2005 but alert train operators averted disaster.  “It was unclear last night whether they ever found a cause” for that incident.

In yesterday’s crash, it appeared that the operator of the train that crashed did not apply the emergency brakes, also known as the “mushroom.” Experts said the train appeared to be traveling fast before impact because the force pushed the first car of the train on top of the train ahead. Witnesses on the train that crashed also reported that the train did not brake before impact.

There was no reason to think that the operator did not spot the train ahead of her yesterday. The weather was clear, and the trains were not in a tunnel.

“It doesn’t look like she hit the brakes,” said a train safety expert, who asked not to be identified because the crash is under investigation. “That’s why you have an operator in the cab. She should have been able to take action. That’s what they’re there for.”

Other possible factors in the crash include a medical emergency that incapacitated the operator or a catastrophic failure of the braking system.

The operator was killed in the accident.

I found out about the accident shortly after it happened via Twitter; a lot of those whose feeds I follow live in DC. I don’t know yet whether anyone I know was on board the trains involved.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. hcantrall says:

    I hope this wasn’t a texting accident

  2. Eric Florack says:

    Based on information from the scene, and a buddy I know in the area who is a rail fan and knows the system well, I tend to agree there must have been some kind of system failure, here. Operator error or not, there’s no way the trailing train operator should have been able to do what she did.

  3. Eric Florack says:

    And by the way… The report that the trailing operator didn’t apply the brakes should be no shock to anyone. Look at the pics of the crash to see why… the train she hit was on a turn… and as I gather it, a partially blind one.