Never Again

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | June 23, 2009 11:38 am

metromap_021605.gifOur thoughts today are with the families of those lost in the rush hour DC Metro crash.

When I lived in the District, I regularly took this red line train between NOAA’s Silver Spring offices and downtown. Several colleagues and friends were onboard, including among the injured.

May this tragedy never happen again.


Comments (11)

  1. Accidents will happen again, of course.

    But it’s hard to see why two passenger trains would end up on the same track headed toward each other more than, say, once in a thousand years, considering how many ways we have of preventing it.

    It’s hard to believe, and I don’t think we should have to hear of this again in our lifetimes.

    Glen Davidson

  2. Glenn,
    to clarify, they were headed in the same direction, not toward each other. the first train was stopped waiting to go into the Metro station, and was struck from behind by a train that apparently wasn’t under sufficient control. Metro runs trains faily close together during rush hour so to keep things moving they use a computer control system without the train operator doing anything. If that system failed as the crach would seem to suggest, there migh tnot be enough time for the operator to initate a manual stop.

  3. Dan Delaney

    The trains were not heading toward each other. The first train was stopped, the second train was following it. This is how ALL metro trains run. Most if not all subways run like; two lines with multiple trains running the same direction on parellel traks. Where did you get the idea they were heading ‘towards’ each other? The reporting has been terrible, but some of the facts as reported are just not adding up

  4. If that system failed as the crach would seem to suggest, there migh tnot be enough time for the operator to initate a manual stop.

    That is rather disturbing. This and the Airbus accident (fly by wire) out of Brazil demonstrate our reliance on computer systems to run (and protect) our lives. Now, it may be that the number of accidents have decreased due to this reliance, but there seems (to me at least) to be a need for an additional layer of safety above and beyond that primary system.

  5. Erasmussimo

    The use of computer control raises all sorts of interesting issues. On the one hand, there’s no question that a properly programmed computer system will always be more reliable than a human operator. On the other hand, there are a million ways a computer system can fail, many of them really stupid. Use of redundancy helps with a lot of them, but the real killers are the unanticipated screwups. What happens when two or three minor failures combine in an unanticipated manner? It appears that something of this order was responsible for the Air France crash; the incorrect readings from the pitot tubes started a chain reaction that led to the structural failure of the plane. I wouldn’t be surprised if the software already had protections against grossly incorrect airspeed readings, but no protections against mildly incorrect readings.

    A slightly different problem lay behind the crash of that Turkish airliner at Schipol recently: there was some sort of mixup with the computer radar altimeter that caused it to retract the landing gear. But pilot error also played a role, as I recall.

  6. I ride the redline to and from work everyday, from the NIH to Dupont. It was strangely quite on the platforms during rush-hour this morning.

    Anyone interested in learning more about the wreck and the controversy over the outdated train car involved in the accident can go to the DCist website.

  7. John Kwok

    The New York City Transit Authority is trying to implement a computer control system similar to the Washington Metro’s. It already has in operation at night a computer control system for the “L” subway line which connects the Chelsea, Manhattan section with the trendy Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg, and the far less desirable Brooklyn neighborhoods of East New York and Canarsie. I hope the New York City Transit Authority will study closely this accident before proceeding with further improvements to its computer control system.

    Sadly the New York City subway system has had its own share of fatal subway accidents, stretching as far back as the early decades of the 20th Century.

  8. MadScientist

    It’s very sad, but I suspect we will see more train accidents in the future. Short attention spans and too much reliance on machines doesn’t help. Bringing a mobile phone into the control booth ought to be a criminal offense; they feature prominently in many incidents.

    @TomJoe: The whole machine vs. human thing has been going on for at least 30 years in aviation. Programmers make mistakes too and there are a few instances where a programming fault resulted in the machine causing a disaster. Trains were the next big thing for automating to reduce accidents. Only the person in the control booth would see what’s ahead of the train so there’s really only one person who can tug on that emergency brake line; if they’re distracted (even just looking out the side window for a second) they might miss the opportunity to put on the brakes.

    I suspect psychology might also play a part; you get so used to machines doing the right thing that it takes you too long to believe that the machine isn’t doing what it’s meant to do in that particular tragic instance. In the case of a stopped train, there should have been a signal further up the line telling the operator to slow down and prepare to stop – was there a signal failure or did the operator not notice the signal? Another option (as in the case of Steve Fosset) is that the operator is incapacitated by stroke/heart attack/ epileptic fit / whatever you can imagine.

  9. Christina Viering

    My prayers are with those passengers and families.

  10. It’s tragic that this happened. But how about some context to keep this in perspective? A commuter train crash is news-worthy because it is so rare. Over 100 people die, on average, every day in car crashes in this country.

    “Never again” is irrational; life is risky.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry.Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.comFor more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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