Safety board to look at possible computer role in Washington train crash

Washington D.C. Metrorail computers programmed to prevent rear-end train accidents

U.S. National Transportation Safety Board officials today said that its investigators will examine whether computer systems, sensors or cell phones played a role in yesterday's Washington D.C. Metrorail crash that killed nine people.

Experts note that there are also several other possible causes of the crash of one Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) train into another with such force that the first literally climbed on top of the other. They could include track problems, mechanical failures and human error.

But the WMATA computer systems are likely to get significant attention from investigators because they were designed to prevent such rear-end accidents. The computer systems are constantly making decisions on train speed based on track-bed sensors that monitor train movements.

Kegan Kawano, a senior security consultant at Industrial Defender Inc. in Foxboro, Mass., noted that NTSB investigators likely have to rule out whether the crash resulted from a misconfigured control system, a physical computer failure or a security breach.

Security breaches aren't unknown in transportation systems. Kawano said he's aware of 10 security incidents in transit systems since about 2003. Among them, in 2007, a Polish teen allegedly derailed a train by hacking into a network. In 2003, a widely disbursed worm affected systems used by rail hauler CSX Corp., causing it to halt some passenger and freight service, he added.

Kawano did note that rail automation systems are so unique that hackers oftentimes can't figure out how to penetrate them. "They are systems that rely on known technology but are put together in unique ways," he said.

At a press conference today, NTSB investigator Debbie Hersman noted that the agency will also look at the actions of on-board operators. "We don't know, at this point, whether the operator could have seen ahead of them in time to stop," she said.

The striking train included cars that are some 30 years old ready for replacement, which raises the possibility of a mechanical failure. The NTSB said it also plans to examine cell phone and text messaging records of the operators, as well as signal systems and tracks.

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