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Metro confirms serious safety violations after STATter911 report about sending passengers toward danger

Metro also confirms they're looking at fire department notification issues

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Previously: Metro passengers sent towards track fire — Train then has trouble escaping

Read WMSC report into December 10 incident

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Administration (WMATA) confirmed today (Friday) serious safety violations first reported in a Monday STATter911 story. During a December 10 incident, a train with passengers was sent toward danger and then the train’s operator made mistakes that greatly delayed getting those passengers to safety. In addition, an investigation by the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission (WMSC), an independent group charged with overseeing Metrorail safety, found “dangerous dysfunction” inside Metro’s Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC) during the incident.

Metro says a ROCC rail dispatcher (controller in Metro terminology) erred in sending the Red Line train with passengers to check out a report of sparks on the tracks near the Tenleytown-AU Station. The Metro statement cites “insufficient training”.

Following a fatal fire in 2015, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommended that Metro cease a long-standing practice of using trains filled with passengers to check out reports of fire and smoke. In 2017 Metro confirmed new standard operating procedures to comply with the NTSB recommendation.

In the December 10 incident, it took more than 40-minutes for the train to get the passengers to safety at the Friendship Heights Station. Metro says the train could only travel 2-3 mph because the train’s operator did not follow proper procedures when turning off the train’s ventilation system.

In addition, Metro reports there was a procedure violation by ROCC and its Emergency Response Team members in restoring third rail power following the incident, putting Metro personnel and firefighters in danger. This is far from the first time Metro has turned on third rail power without properly communicating with firefighters on the scene.

The scathing report from WMSC, like the initial STATter911 story, makes many comparisons to the serious safety lapses that resulted in the 2015 death of Carol Glover and injuries to scores of other passengers. Among the comparisons is the “dangerous dysfunction” inside ROCC as the situation unfolded:

The issues noted above are very similar to some of the issues that were addressed by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in its final report of the L’Enfant Plaza station electrical arcing and smoke accident that involved a fatality on January 12, 2015. In that report, a ROCC controller is quoted describing the situation inside the ROCC during that event, saying the “right hand did not know what the left hand was doing.” That controller said that during the L’Enfant Plaza event, “…it was people deep, people on the phone. People running around, people asking questions. There is a certain amount of calm that for me works better in chaos than a bunch of chaos trying to undo chaos.”

Metro has also confirmed it’s reviewing its “emergency response notification” procedures (details here). STATter911 has reported numerous delays in notifying the DC Fire & EMS Department about rail emergencies. There has been a series of communications issues at both ROCC and DC’s 911 center (Office of Unified Communications).

Statement from Metro:

Metro internal review of Dec 10 Red Line incident finds safety hazard resulted from human error, insufficient training

Metro’s post-incident review of the December 10 Red Line disruption has identified two violations of safety policies or procedures—prompting immediate corrective action—as well as specific areas where additional training and supervisory oversight is required.

The review, led by Metro Chief Safety Officer Theresa Impastato, found that the ROCC controller did not follow safety procedures upon receiving a report of “light sparks” in the tunnel outside Tenleytown Station. While the train operator did not explicitly report “smoke” or “fire,” the ROCC controller appropriately recognized a potential hazard and requested that the following train (Train #130) conduct a track inspection but failed to instruct Train 130 to offload its passengers before beginning the inspection. The controller’s actions violated Metro’s safety rules and procedures for smoke/fire incidents, and immediate corrective action is underway.

The review also found that, after departing Friendship Heights and entering the tunnel, Train 130’s operator notified ROCC that she had properly stopped the train in advance of a small fire on the track ahead. The ROCC controller directed the train operator to return to Friendship Heights, a process that required deactivating the train’s anti-collision protection system in order to move against the normal direction of traffic. ROCC also instructed the operator to perform a specific procedure to turn off the train’s ventilation systems. The train operator did not properly execute these procedures, and subsequently could not proceed faster than 2-3 mph, resulting in an unacceptable delay in returning passengers to the station.

After the incident, Metro technicians inspected the train and did not find any contributing mechanical problems. The review subsequently determined that, while attempting to turn off ventilation systems and override the automatic train protection system, the operator toggled the wrong circuit breakers, an error that engaged the brakes and turned off the lights.

ROCC made several attempts to assist the operator during the incident by verifying the necessary steps over the radio. However, the troubleshooting effort was deemed insufficient by the review and will be improved. Further, the review concluded that operators need better training on rarely used mechanical procedures, and will recommend new training to execute the procedures during a simulated tunnel emergency.

ROCC reported the incident by phone to DC’s 911 center (DC Office of Unified Communication), and the fire department responded to Friendship Heights Station. While Metro’s review into emergency response notification is ongoing, process changes are anticipated.

Finally, the review found a safety violation and identified critical errors by ROCC and Emergency Response Team members in the tunnel related to the restoration of third-rail power. Protocols to protect workers from electrical injury were not followed in this incident, and appropriate corrective action was immediately undertaken as a result, including administrative processes, increased supervision, and reinforcement of policies.

Metro’s policies regarding fire/smoke incidents have been reinforced with all ROCC controllers and supervisors, and SAFE has increased supervisory oversight of ROCC staff to ensure compliance with operating procedures. In addition, train operators are being refreshed on procedures from this incident and related troubleshooting. Additional action is planned to improve training and emergency response times.

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