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In the Matter of the v. Washington

January 7, 2011

IN THE MATTER OF THE FORT TOTTEN METRORAIL CASES LEAD CASE: JENKINS
v.
WASHINGTON METROPOLITAN AREA TRANSIT AUTHORITY, ET AL.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reggie B. Walton United States District Judge

Arising Out of the Events of June 22, 2009

THIS DOCUMENT RELATES TO: ALL CASES

Memorandum Opinion

This Order addresses an issue that remained unresolved after the November 4, 2010 hearing on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's ("WMATA") motion to dismiss Counts IV and XIII of the plaintiffs' Second Amended Master Complaint ("Compl."), alleging Negligence -- Disabling of Warning Alarms in the Operations Control Center based on the doctrine of sovereign immunity. The Court now concludes that these claims must be dismissed.

I. Introduction

In Counts IV and XIII of their Second Amended Master Complaint, the plaintiffs assert negligence claims against WMATA,*fn1 Compl. ¶¶ 214-20, 277-83, on the grounds that WMATA reprogrammed its train monitoring alarm system making warnings "consistent with loss of train detection" both self-acknowledging and self-deleting. Id. ¶ 217. Specifically, the plaintiffs allege that "bobbing," a phenomenon where "an isolated track circuit transitions from vacant, to occupied[,] and back to vacant again," prior to the reprogramming of the monitoring alarm system, triggered "alarms for loss of train detection" that required acknowledgment by controllers in the Operation Control Center ("OCC"), id. ¶¶ 168, 280, but because "bobbing had become such a frequent occurrence, WMATA[,] in coordination with defendant ARINC[,] deliberately reprogrammed their computer system to automatically erase these alarms," id. ¶ 280. The plaintiffs argue that this decision was "reckless," id. ¶ 281, and absent such action "an OCC controller likely would have communicated with Train 112 and the June 22, 2009 collision likely would have been avoided," id. ¶ 282.

Commenting on this subject, the National Transportation Administration Safety Board ("NTSB") Report states:

The inbound main track . . . between the Takoma and Fort Totten stations is divided into 27 track circuits. The automatic block system detects trains as they occupy and vacate each of these track circuits and transmits this information through remote terminal units to the [Advanced Information Management ("AIM")] computer system at the OCC. . . . .

The AIM system is designed to display, and in some cases sound, an alarm whenever certain patterns are detected in track occupancy data. In general, alarms that are classified as "major" must be acknowledged by the appropriate line controllers and be manually deleted (usually by the Metrorail maintenance operations center [MOC], which is a separate console within the OCC). Typically, alarms classified as "minor" can be manually acknowledged and deleted in the same manner as major alarms, but if a minor alarm remains unacknowledged after 60 seconds, the computer will automatically acknowledge and delete it.

When the AIM software detects that a normal main line track circuit is reporting as occupied in isolation (neither in front of nor behind a train), it issues a "track-circuit-failed-occupied" train tracking alarm. . . . According to [the] OCC records, track-circuit-failed-occupied alarms occur at the rate of about 5,000 per week.

When the AIM software detects that a track circuit reports as unoccupied under certain preprogrammed conditions, it issues a "track-circuit-failed-vacant" train tracking alarm. . . . The algorithm used to trigger [a non-reporting block ("NRB")] alarm may be described as follows: The AIM system creates a virtual train whenever two adjacent track circuits indicate simultaneous occupancy. If one or two new track-circuit occupancy indications then occur "downstream" (in the direction of travel) of the virtual train, any intermediate track circuit that indicates "unoccupied" will generate an NRB alarm. If both previously occupied track circuits indicate "unoccupied" without the track circuit downstream from these indicating "occupied," both of the previously occupied track circuits will generate NRB alarms. If a train occupies three or more track circuits and one or more of the intermediate track circuits indicates "unoccupied," those unoccupied track circuits will generate NRB alarms. . . . According to [the] OCC records, NRB track-circuit-failed-vacant alarms occur at the rate of about 3,000 per week.

The AIM software responds to a "bobbing" track circuit (a track circuit malfunction in which a track circuit transitions from vacant, to occupied, to vacant again with no train traffic present) by issuing a cascade of track-circuit-failed-occupied/failed-vacant alarms. Because of the high incidence of bobbing track circuit alarms, WMATA has designated track-circuit-failed-occupied/failed-vacant alarms as minor alarms. Loss of train detection is a different type of track circuit malfunction .

National Transportation Safety Board, Railroad Accident Report 10/02: Collision of Two Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Metrorail Trains Near Fort Totten Station Washington, D.C. June 22, 2009, available at http://www.ntsb.gov/publictn/2010/RAR1002.pdf ("NTSB Report") at 27-29 (footnotes omitted). It is these two alarm triggering events described in the NTSB Report that the plaintiffs contend should have been maintained as major rather than minor alarms, and that WMATA was negligent in reprogramming the designation of the alarms. WMATA ...


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