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NTSB Tells Subway, Rail Systems Nationwide to Inspect for Wheel Defects After Derailment

The National Transportation Safety Board has issued a safety alert for all subway systems and commuter railroads after a train derailed in Washington, D.C., in October, the Associated Press reported.

A preliminary report released about the October 12 derailment singles out a flaw in the rail car’s wheel and axle assembly that was not able to be identified through a visual check. The affected car, the 7000 series, was found to have a problem that caused the wheels to spread too wide on the axles. As a result, the NTSB is urging systems across the country to inspect for any potential defects in their trains’ wheels.

“The NTSB is concerned that car 7200 operated with a wheelset that did not meet specifications for an undetermined time as the car derailed three times on the day of the accident…without any noticeable indication of the problem to alert the train operator,” the alert said.

The NTSB then said that the derailment occurred due to the inconsistent movement of the wheel and urged agencies to begin immediate inspections.

Many agencies have already begun inspections of their vehicles. According to AP, the transit and rail agencies argued that the notice did not have to apply to them due to positive checks. In response, the NTSB is still urging that systems stay diligent.

While the Metro fleet of trains in Washington, D.C., has begun taking passengers after the incident, the majority of vehicles in the fleet are still suspended. A train car had slipped off the railway tracks near Arlington National Cemetery three times but was able to get back on the tracks twice before eventually derailing completely. No one was injured in the incident.

You can read the NTSB report here.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

A Washington Metro train pulls into the Dupont Circle station on November 24, 2021, in Washington, D.C. The regional train system serving the District of Columbia area will remain on drastically reduced service levels through at least the end of this year as authorities grapple with a safety problem that has forced the majority of the trains out of service.
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

“A derailment due to wheel movement could be catastrophic,” according to the safety alert.

The issue had been apparent to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority since 2017, but neither the NTSB nor the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) board had been informed. At the place of derailment, the NTSB said the maximum authorized speed was 59 miles per hour. Preliminary data from an onboard event recorder showed the train speed was below that at about 33 mph.

Washington Metro is expected to operate sharply reduced service at least through the end of the year.

“The safety alert identifies the issue of wheelset movement on transit railcars and commuter railroads as a serious problem,” said Robert Hall, director of NTSB’s office of railroad, pipeline and hazardous materials investigations.

“As we continue to conduct the investigation of this derailment, it is imperative that the safety issues identified are addressed immediately to protect the American public traveling daily on our transit system.”

The agency said its investigation will examine whether the flawed wheelsets were a result of a design defect or assembly error, evaluate the response from rail traffic controllers and try to identify if there are similar problems in other types of rail cars.

The safety concerns come as public transit agencies work to win back passengers and build out expanded transportation routes under President Joe Biden’s new infrastructure law after a crushing year of drained ridership due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In Washington, overall rider numbers remain at about 30 percent of pre-pandemic levels but were expected to increase with office reopenings and renewed tourism.

Metro Orange Line DC
The National Transportation Safety Board has issued a safety alert for all subway systems and commuter railroads after a train derailed in Washington, D.C., in October. Above, a Metro train (orange line) approaches the Minnesota Avenue Metro station in Washington on September 29, 2021.
Photo by Daniel Slim/AFP via Getty Images