Washington, D.C.’s metro is having an embarrassing year, with a litany of track fires and safety threats bringing the transit system under national scrutiny and federal oversight and revealing a deteriorating system suffering from decades of neglect.
A fatal track fire in 2015 led federal officials at the Department of Transportation to initiate safety oversight of D.C. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), marking the first time federal officials took control of a national transit system in history. The National Transportation Safety Board conducted a year long investigation into the deadly track fire, while the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) ran various inspections of tunnels, emergency procedures and employee actions.
The results revealed a troubling culture resulting from decades of safety negligence and improper repairs. WMATA leaders failed to make changes to safety threats stretching back to a 1982 derailment that left three people dead and twenty-five injured. The deadly 2015 fire stemmed from poor communication and a failure by workers to follow the required safety procedures.
During saftey inspections throughout April, inspectors with the FTA observed WMATA employees violating safety procedures on numerous occasions, putting themselves and commuters at risk. They found trains ignoring speed restrictions in tunnels and workers ignoring the “15-second ample time rule” as trains approach, sometimes jumping out of a train’s way with only seconds to spare.
It appears the years of neglected maintenance is finally catching up with the system. Track fires are becoming a regular occurrence, requiring several tunnel evacuations and station closures this year. Pressure on officials continues to mount, with Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx threatening a full system shutdown Tuesday if WMATA does not get its house in order.
As criticism boils over, we take a look at the worst disasters in 2016.
1. 29-hour closure of the entire metro system
In an unprecedented move that even caught Mayor Muriel Bowser off guard, WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld initiated a 29-hour closure of the entire Metro system March 16, reeking havoc on the city’s commuters in the middle of a workweek. Commuters ride the metro roughly 725,000 times a day, a significantly large number to cut off from the service. A track fire earlier in the week prompted the now infamous closure, requiring maintenance workers to replace 600 jumper cables.
2. Track explosion closes two stations during Thursday rush hour
Seconds after a crowded commuter train pulled out of a D.C. metro station May 5 a track fire ignited, sending an explosion of sparks flying onto the platform and prompting officials to close down two stations. Federal officials were troubled with WMATA’s lackluster response to the fire incident. The FTA found officials responded slowly and misdiagnosed the mechanical failure which sparked the explosion.
Federal inspectors requested the Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC) cut power to the line after the first track incident Thursday morning, however ROCC personnel denied the request until a second fire. For hours before the second fire, WMATA sent passenger-filled trains on the potentially dangerous track. The video of the shocking fireball says it all.
Federal Center SW DC Metro Station this morning. 2nd incident this afternoon forced station to be closed pic.twitter.com/jZ9aPuXaUf
— Tony Capra (@tcapra) May 5, 2016
3. Weekend track fire leads to evacuation after riders get trapped in tunnel
Metro passengers had to be evacuated off a train for the second time in under two weeks April 23 after a fire trapped riders in a tunnel near the Friendship Heights station. Passengers reported hearing a loud noise and seeing a flash, followed by the glow of flames in the tunnel. Smoke filled some of the trains as passengers were moved toward rear railcars. Riders blasted officials for poor communication, describing mass confusion in the smoke filled tunnel and people in tears, fearing for their lives.
“It was like chaos, and nobody knows what’s going on,” Sarah Alaoui, a passenger on the train, told The Washington Post. “Who knows what’s going to happen to you in a sealed off Metro in the tunnels when you hear an explosion? There was no information.”
4. New train gets stuck in a tunnel at Rosslyn station, riders evacuated
A new 7000-series Blue Line train lost power and got stuck in a tunnel outside the Rosslyn station, trapping up to 200 passengers in the tunnel for over an hour as crews attempted a rescue. All passengers were eventually safely evacuated from the tunnel.
“It was scary,” a passenger told Fox5. “Just sitting under the tunnel with nothing – no service, you can’t call nobody or nothing. Metro needs to get themselves together.”
5. Doors opening on the wrong side of tracks
In less than a two-week span in February, officials found three instances where train operators came into a station and opened the doors facing the tracks of trains moving in the opposite direction. In every case, the train operator was suspended and an investigation was opened. Opening doors on the wrong side of the platform has yet to cause any injuries, but forced WMATA officials to send an internal memo reminding operators to stay alert and keep safety as their top priority.
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