The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will explore whether computer systems, sensors, or cell phones contributed to the deadly Washington, D.C., Metrorail accident on June 22 in which nine people were killed. Although there are several other possible reasons for why the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) train crashed into the rear of another train, the WMATA computer systems will likely be closely examined because they are designed to prevent such rear-end accidents. The computer systems are constantly making decisions on train speed using data from track-bed sensors that monitor train movement. NTSB investigators will likely try to rule out possible causes, such as a misconfigured control system, a physical computer or hardware failure, or a security breach, says consultant Kegan Kawano. Security breaches have been known to happen in transportation systems, and Kawano says he is aware of 10 security incidents in transit systems since 2003. For example, a Polish teen allegedly derailed a train by hacking the network, and in 2003 a widespread worm affected systems used by rail hauler CSX Corp., causing the company to stop some passenger and freight service. Kawano says the design of rail automation systems is so unique that hackers often cannot figure out how to access them. NTSB investigator Debbie Hersman also says the agency will examine the actions of onboard operators and investigate the possibility of a mechanical failure.
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