Red Line Tragedy

District of Columbia Fire and Emergency workers at the site of a rush-hour collision between two Metro transit trains in northeast Washington, D.C. Monday, June 22, 2009. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

It is ironic that a popular movie this week is a remake of the 1974 film  "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, a Denzel Washington vehicle that also features all the modern technology devised to prevent subway-train crashes.

Hijackers thwart the safety gizmos in the fictional depiction, but investigators today were still trying to figure out what went terribly wrong and allowed two commuter trains to collide in Washington on Monday, killing nine people and leaving almost 80 injured.

Washington’s popular Metro system is equipped with a fail-safe signal system that should have prevented the rush-hour accident. There is a precedent, however; the Washington Post reports that only the quick thinking of two operators who noticed their trains were too close prevented a similar crash four years ago.

Eyewitness accounts suggest the operator of the second train in Monday’s crash either did not apply the brakes, or did not do that fast enough, to keep it from ramming the first train, which had stopped. But there were also reports that the older train was overdue for brake maintenance.

It will likely take the National Transportation Safety Board some time to make a final ruling. It took two years before it attributed a 2006 head-on collision of two SEPTA trains to human error; finally concluding that one engineer ignored warning signals and a dispatcher didn’t intervene. Thirty-eight people were injured.

The carnage after Monday’s wreck on the Red Line was “unbelievable,” to quote Metro General Manager John B. Crane Jr. The first car of the second train went airborne and landed on top of the first train. Inside the crushed cars, passengers suffered cuts, broken bones, and other injuries.

Good wishes are extended to the injured victims, and condolences to the families of those who died. The Red Line wreck was a reminder that even with one of the safest, technologically advanced modes of transportation, the unexpected can occur.