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Yesterday, Washington, DC suffered a horrific train/rail crash when one Metro train slammed into the back of another. The crash killed at least seven people and injured more than seventy others.

In the coming days, investigators will try and figure out what went wrong. The trains were reportedly on "auto pilot" during the wreck, with electronic safety systems designed to prevent rear-end collisions and human operators in place as emergency back-up just in case. Obviously, something went terribly wrong.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the DC Metrorail’s first brush with a lack of safety. In the past, the National Transportation Safety Board has criticized the agency for ignoring safety problems, ignoring warning from managers, and disregarding NTSB recommendations.

I’ve been emailing my friend Rick Shapiro, a Northern Virginia/DC personal injury lawyer, who happens to be one of the top railroad injury lawyers in the country. Rick’s a former head of the American Association for Justice Railroad Law section (and now one of Rick’s partners currently holds that post), and he’s written extensively on railroad safety. It’s really too early to tell what’s going on with this particular Metro crash, but Rick tells me that one of the things that concerns him is that the Metro was working on the tracks near the incident. This work could have likely caused some type of problem. As far as the operator’s failure goes, Rick says that he’s had previous cases involving Metro train wrecks where the Metro drivers were so overworked that fatigue played a big part in the wreck. I also saw a note that the operator of the train involved was one of the most inexperienced in the Metro system.

While Austin is a long way from DC, is the train wreck a warning for what’s coming here? As most of you know, Austin’s Capital Metro is supposed to start its own rail line shortly. The line was originally scheduled to open in early 2008. The line had its fourth delay in March 2009 when the NTSB shut it down for safety violations. Capital Metro was supposed to announce a new starting date last month, but failed to do so. Now, in the wake of the DC train crash and last year’s notorious LA rail crash, we have to ask whether Austin’s new line will be safe. And the answer so far is, "I don’t know." But at this point, I’m glad that Capital Metro is taking the time to make the system safe so that we can minimize any safety concerns that are out there.


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