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Here's what Metro's work crews found during the closure

During Wednesday's system closure, Metro's work crews found at least 26 power cables and connectors that required immediate repair. This makes you wonder: What will it take to uncover similar issues?


Image of a third rail jumper cable with frayed outer metal insulation. Photo from WMATA.

The Metrorail system shut down for the whole day Wednesday so that track crews could inspect and repair all 600 train power cables. General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said the system was divvied up into 22 sections and crews went to work checking them all, repairing the ones which were found to be in unacceptable condition.

By the agency's 6 pm press conference on Wednesday, Metro had inspected 80 percent of the cables and found that 26 required repairs. It had fixed 18, and it handled the rest overnight, before today's opening.

"Let me tell you, the shut down today was necessary" said Wiedefeld. While there weren't any cables in immediate danger of causing a fire, Wiedefeld said enough were in a "hazardous condition that we cannot accept" to justify stopping all trains for a day, a very rare move in Metro's 39-year history.


Third rail power jumper cable "boots." The third rail is under the white cover that follows next to the track. Image from WMATA.

Here's the issue

The power cables that were called into question after the fire on Monday are part of the third rail system, which powers trains so they can move down the track. The "jumpers" as they're called are used to bridge gaps in the third rail, like when the third rail has to move from one side of the track to the other. The jumper cables allow the third rail to be on whichever side of the track it needs to be on to create a continuous supply of power for the trains passing on the track.

According to Wiedefeld and Board Chairman Jack Evans, the Monday fire was similar to the one at L'Enfant Plaza in January of 2015. At L'Enfant, a defective power cable missing some of its insulation, which would prevent moisture and dirt from getting into the cable, made contact with another piece of metal, like the tunnel wall. This caused sparking which led to fire and smoke, and in essence is a common form of a power "short"—where the path of the electrons deviates from where you want them to go—just on a larger scale and with more dire consequences.

After the L'Enfant fire and death of a passenger, WMATA re-inspected all of these power cables. WMATA replaced 125 cables, and inspections were set up for the cables to be inspected yearly.

Wiedefeld didn't say if any of the 26 cables found Wednesday had been replaced last year, so we don't know if the cables are just one year old and failed recently, or if the issues were missed during routine inspections. The power system is one of several in Metrorail that, if it isn't working nearly perfectly, could harm employees, emergency personnel, or passengers.

The NTSB recommended WMATA replace all faulty cables last year

The NTSB issued a press release and recommendation to WMATA saying that issues with some of the power connections required "immediate action." The agency found that some jumper cable boots supplying power to the third rail weren't installed with proper insulation, meaning that water and debris could reach the metal carrying the power and cause a short or spark.

In addition the evidence collected at L'Enfant, the NTSB also pointed to the electrical "smoke event" in the tunnel outside Court House as being caused in part due to faulty power cable installation.

"Investigators found that cable connectors were missing 'sealing sleeves' designed to keep moisture and contaminants away from the high-voltage conductors," read the NTSB report.

The NTSB's immediate action recommendation instructed Metro to inspect and verify that all cables that were installed had been properly constructed, which the inspections and repair in June were said to have accomplished.

The FTA questioned the thoroughness of WMATA track inspections

The Federal Transit Administration issued a scathing 116-page report last summer detailing numerous safety issues that their inspectors found when investigating how WMATA does business.

One of the issues listed in the report is one that claims that the number of people available to do track inspections was cut in half, meaning that each group of two track walkers meant to inspect the rail and nearby equipment includes only one person who is actually inspecting the tracks, fasteners, power equipment, and electrical systems. The other worker, who used to check the tracks as well, is now dedicated to looking out for trains, which could be coming at any time.

The FTA heard from track inspectors themselves who said that they "cannot adequately inspect both running rails and the third rail" in the time they have to get the inspections done. A side-effect of this could be that the track personnel skip or gloss over more subtle issues, letting them fester until turning into a full-blown issue.

What else is lurking in the tunnels?

With the discovery this week of a system-wide issue with faulty power cables, one has to wonder what might be next. The system inspection in September of Metro's tracks, which only came in response to the derailment at Smithsonian station, revealed several missed code-black defects which should have been caught but weren't. With the seemingly long-held attitude of reacting to problems at Metro instead of getting out in front of them, it's very possible there's another incident just waiting to happen.

Lets hope Mr. Wiedefeld and crew squash the festering problems before they show themselves again.

Stephen Repetski is a Virginia native and has lived in the Fairfax area for over 20 years. He has a BS in Applied Networking and Systems Administration from Rochester Institute of Technology and works in Information Technology. Learning about, discussing, and analyzing transit (especially planes and trains) is a hobby he enjoys. 

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I bet there is one railcar in the entire system that has something loose that sometimes snags these cables. Now their inspections need to carefully inspect the third rail shoes on every single railcar for loose equipment.

by orulz on Mar 17, 2016 10:24 am • linkreport

Great job, WMATA and Paul with 1) communicating the issues openly, 2) understanding the seriousness of the issue, 3) addressing the issues after a thorough inspection, 4) being strategic about showing the region the importance of heavy rail and why it should be funded, and 5) establishing/re-earning trust with the users. Well played.

by Sal Al on Mar 17, 2016 10:30 am • linkreport

The map shown yesterday of the defects found during the inspection had an interesting pattern: all of the defects were on the main BL/OR/SV trunk line from Foggy Bottom to Stadium-Armory. Every station along that trunk had a defect of some kind. No other defects were reported elsewhere in the system.

http://www.wmata.com/about_metro/news/PressReleaseDetail.cfm?ReleaseID=6083

This pattern suggests something systemic. Perhaps it's a pattern of maintenance; perhaps a pattern of inspector assignments; perhaps of something operational (the power cable in the video Metro released seemed to have been damaged by something attached to a train, either passenger or trackwork related). But for the defects to show up in that one segment of track and nowhere else is interesting.

by Alex B. on Mar 17, 2016 10:31 am • linkreport

+1 on what Orulz
I bet they did inspections and did repairs and the trains are causing this.
Too many people involved to blow off inspections

by Brett Young on Mar 17, 2016 10:33 am • linkreport

@Sal Al

+1

Say what you will about the shutdown and how we got to that point, but it was very refreshing to see some kind of visible action resulting from Monday's fire. And it wasn't just vague notices of "we're doing inspections." It included details, photos, videos, numbers - it felt like WMATA wanted us to know what was happening and why. And that's exactly as it should be.

by Travis Maiers on Mar 17, 2016 10:51 am • linkreport

@orulz

You make a very good point and not just about the boots. A full inspection of all of the cars top to bottom might be needed to see what else is wrong.

by Matt R on Mar 17, 2016 11:04 am • linkreport

The fact that 26 cables have been affected over a year shows that this is definitely being caused by something, not that the inspectors a year ago were out to lunch. On the other hand the fact that it's only 26 shows and not way more shows that it's probably an intermittent problem, so it will probably not be really obvious.

A full inspection top to bottom of every railcar would be worthwhile but not on an emergency basis. Metro has to be focused here. Of course there are other problems, but this is a specific problem and it has already killed one person and injured/sickend numerous others, so I would be OK with just inspecting the underside of every single railcar assigned to the pool for blue/orange/silver. Hopefully Metro can connect the dots and find the car or cars that are causing this issue.

This inspection needs to be done ASAP.

by orulz on Mar 17, 2016 11:20 am • linkreport

Someone in management needs to get fired or demoted.

by SJE on Mar 17, 2016 11:29 am • linkreport

+1 to all above. The shutdown was unfortunate and undoubtedly stressful for many, but apparently necessary. Kudos to Wiedefeld for finally saying enough is enough, and for following through on his stated commitment to transparent communication.

Personally, I'd like to see more shutdowns, only more targeted and announced well in advance. Targeted closings of weekend and late-night service seem like obvious choices, but I'm curious to hear what others think. Ideally bus bridges or other measures could help ameliorate the impact.

I realize that I may be too cavalier about it since I don't rely on Metro for, say, getting to a service job outside of the M-F 9-5 window. But other systems seem to have success with a "maintenance blitz" approach of closing, fixing a lot in a short period of time, and then re-opening with much improved service – as opposed to the current pattern of frequent delays nearly all the time (but especially off-peak) because you can only fit so much service into a 5-7 hour window every night.

by cyco on Mar 17, 2016 11:31 am • linkreport

@Cyco - I'm very much in favor of a targeted shutdowns over longer periods. Late nights will not do much, as it will not expand the track work window significantly.

I do not believe, however, that the burden should fall wholly on weekend passengers. I think that disproportionately impacts DC residents, who are much more likely to use it outside of normal commuting hours.

For the busiest sections of track, such as the stations in downtown DC, I think there would be too much chaos to do an extended weekday shutdown, and would support the occasional weekend closure. But if they're working on Shady Grove to Medical Center, or Forest Glen to Fort Totten, or any segment that is not smack in the middle of the system, they should close down a track for a few days or a week and do a maintenance blitz. It is far more efficient to have lengthen the work periods to uninterrupted for as long as possible - more can get done with a Thurs-Sun closure than two Sat/Sun closures. Plus I'd argue its much more equitable to do the work in this manner - it simply is not fair to weekend/evening riders to suffer through 2-3 weekends with no service on a particular line, when the work could get wrapped up over a few days during a single week.

by Ross on Mar 17, 2016 11:50 am • linkreport

If this is a recurring problem and it's so hard to find what is damaging the cables could a re-design of the cable connectors be done? Do other systems have this same problem? Do other systems use this same jumper connector system?

by Tom Coumaris on Mar 17, 2016 11:52 am • linkreport

I applaud the work that Wiedefield is doing but I believe this was a show of "muscle" rather than a carefully thought-out logistical decision. OPM, FTA, jurisdictional leaders and the region's transportation management planners were notified at the same time as the general public. That's just a very irresponsible decision from a logistical perspective; but, if the goal is to put WMATA's efforts at reform on the front page of the news and the forefront of everyone's mind, then mission accomplished.

If politics and publicity were not an issue, then yes, it would have been much more responsible to let weekend riders shoulder the burden of a shutdown. It's a matter of inconveniencing 700,000 daily trips versus 200,000 daily trips. There are obviously downsides to closing on ANY day of the week, but it's a no-brainer as far as how to impact the fewest number of riders.

by Scoot on Mar 17, 2016 12:02 pm • linkreport

Similar to what some others are asking, can we determine what is actually causing seemingly random chunks of the cables to deteriorate?

Sounds almost improbable given the high voltage involved but the damage looks very similar to what happens when rats/rodents knaw at electric cabling. Google it and take a look.

Recent fires on the Melbourne metro have been blamed on rats chewing out sections of cable.

by nativedc on Mar 17, 2016 12:05 pm • linkreport

I wonder if the reason why all the ripped cables were on the core of BL/OR/SV and not on any other line is because, since 2014, BL/OR/SV experiences far more trains per day than any other segment?

During the peak, Red and Blue/Orange/Silver have about an equal 26 trains per hour putting wear and tear on the tracks. (Yellow/Green combined are something less than 26 trains per hour.)

But during off peak, Red drops to 10 trains per hour (one every 6 min). Blue/Orange used to drop to 10 trains per hour also in the core (one Orange and one Blue every 12 min)... But now Blue/Orange/Silver all operate every 12 min = 15 trains per hour. Same relationship is true during evenings and weekends (at least when normal service is operated): Blue/Orange/Silver has 50% more trains on it at all times of the day except peak, when it's equal to Red.

All else equal, more trains passing by would wear down the infrastructure faster. But I wonder if WMATA maintains all track in an "equal" fashion (allocating the same number of people per mile for maintenance)? If they do, then of course Blue/Orange/Silver will see more problems.

by Brian on Mar 17, 2016 12:37 pm • linkreport

@Scoot

Suppose that there was a fire from one of those cables yesterday and someone got hurt, how would you reckon things would go down? Just imagine the headlines. Suppose you are the GM, and you are explaining to the media that you wanted to wait for the weekend in order not to inconvenience riders and that you are sorry a 56-year old woman died.

Additionally, one would argue this inconvenience is a good wake-up call for everyone to understand the vitality of public transit for the region. A very strategic (and good) move in my mind.

by Sal Al on Mar 17, 2016 12:37 pm • linkreport

@Ross-
You say:
I do not believe, however, that the burden should fall wholly on weekend passengers. I think that disproportionately impacts DC residents, who are much more likely to use it outside of normal commuting hours.
And also:
Plus I'd argue its much more equitable to do the work in this manner - it simply is not fair to weekend/evening riders to suffer through 2-3 weekends with no service on a particular line, when the work could get wrapped up over a few days during a single week.
I really want to push back on the notion of fairness, proportionality, or the sense the repairs need to be "equitable." I think we both want a safe, reliable subway system. Getting these fixes done should be the primary goal. Beginning the long, long task of restoring trust in WMATA as an institution should be secondary. I think anything that can be done to further those goals--even at the expense of short-term unfairness--is a wildly favorable trade-off.

(Just as a thought experiment, couldn't you say DC residents may suffer in a disproportionate manner when the system is shut down, but doesn't that mean at least in some sense they benefit in a disproportionate manner when the system is working well? I don't especially like this argument, but I see some elements of truth to it. That's one reason I want to push a little back on the equality/fairness aspect of your post.)

I also worry that there just really is not a way to level the impact of these shutdowns. DC residents may be most affected this time, but future shut downs may affect the poor, Virginians, disabled riders, commuters, or other groups. I'm not happy about that. But I'd much rather have a laser focus on safety and reliability, even if it means some unfairness in the short/medium term.

Thoughts?

by WRD on Mar 17, 2016 12:49 pm • linkreport

I am very happy to know that Metro has taken an initiative to fix these ongoing problems. But my question is, Why dosen't metro have a regularly maintenance schedule to avoid these mishaps before they occur?

by Laurel, MD on Mar 17, 2016 12:56 pm • linkreport

Higher hourly volume of trains through the Blue/Orange/Silver trunk causing more wear and tear??

by commute201 on Mar 17, 2016 1:10 pm • linkreport

...combined with oldest section of track opened in 1976 if memory stands correct.

by commute201 on Mar 17, 2016 1:15 pm • linkreport

Suppose that there was a fire from one of those cables yesterday and someone got hurt, how would you reckon things would go down?

Well, there could have been a fire between the time the closure was announced and midnight, and the backlash would have been the same.

However, according to Wiedefield, the chance of a fire was very low. So it's hard to explain the closure on the basis of urgency alone.

by Scoot on Mar 17, 2016 1:22 pm • linkreport

@WRD - I agree completely. The first priority should be bringing the system up to a state of good repair as soon as possible, which will also result in the safest system possible.

I think belief is in line with calling for multi-day shutdowns for maintenance blitzes (at least until the maintenance backlog is cleared), which is the fastest, cheapest and most efficient way to get the work done.

Once the argument starts to get made, however, that work should not go on during certain periods of time (such as weekdays), I think it is completely fair to make the statement that there should be some equality in how Metrorail users share the burden of how the work needs to be done. But my preference is to skip all of that and just do it is the fastest, lowest cost and most efficient way possible which is multi-day shutdowns.

by Ross on Mar 17, 2016 2:11 pm • linkreport

But other systems seem to have success with a "maintenance blitz" approach of closing, fixing a lot in a short period of time, and then re-opening with much improved service

Yeah, and they actually tell you what they did.

http://web.mta.info/nyct/service/fastrack/bdfm_03_11.htm

Good thing WMATA posted those photos of the cables. Not seeing much of the "why didn't he wait until the weekend?" grumbling anymore.

by massysett on Mar 17, 2016 2:13 pm • linkreport

I think it is completely fair to make the statement that there should be some equality in how Metrorail users share the burden of how the work needs to be done. But my preference is to skip all of that and just do it is the fastest, lowest cost and most efficient way possible which is multi-day shutdowns.

Typically WMATA replaces closed rail service with buses. That will be cheaper on weekends, when there are fewer riders to shuttle, less traffic congestion to slow the buses, and more buses and drivers available.

by massysett on Mar 17, 2016 2:16 pm • linkreport

@massysett - I agree it will be cheaper to provide alternative service on weekends, however this has to be weighed against the savings by having to break up the work over several weekends rather than getting it done in a single stretch. I'm not sure how significant the inefficiencies are, but I know that a decent amount more can get done in a 96 hour stretch (say Friday-Monday) than two 48 hour stretches over two weekends. If WMATA maintenance personel are paid a wage differential for night/weekend work, that would also need to be factored in.

I'd like to see WMATA lay out the costs/impacts/timelines of various approaches and solicit rider input before forming a general maintenance strategy.

One benefit to a weekend closure is that perhaps there will be more political will to provide the replacement buses a dedicated lane, which would significantly soften the inconvenience.

by Ross on Mar 17, 2016 3:12 pm • linkreport

@Sal Al - "Suppose that there was a fire from one of those cables yesterday and someone got hurt, how would you reckon things would go down? Just imagine the headlines. Suppose you are the GM, and you are explaining to the media that you wanted to wait for the weekend in order not to inconvenience riders and that you are sorry a 56-year old woman died."

But... we already do this for highways. If we discover a design or maintenance flaw on a highway that might increase the possibility of crashing... we generally wait until the weekend to do work on it, even if there's a possibility that some driver might die using it in the meantime. In fact, there have been cases where known deficiencies on highways were put off (especially in the case of collapsing bridges)... and yet, the priority (as misguided as it might have been in hindsight) was to not impact rush hour commuters by closing the highway to get the repairs done.

Why is transit any different? Because the vehicles themselves are owned by the government and being driven by public employees? That really doesn't make any sense if you truly think about it... in both cases, government inaction is leading to a slightly increased risk of death. It's just that in the highway example, there's a sense of "I'm in control of my destiny" that leads everyone to discount the notion that the highway should be closed immediately.

by Brian on Mar 17, 2016 4:10 pm • linkreport

(And don't even get me started on how society totally ignores design/maintenance flaws on pedestrian and bike facilities... those can stay open - or not exist at all - until literally hundreds of people are dying, with no consequence to state and local DOTs.)

by Brian on Mar 17, 2016 4:14 pm • linkreport

"However, according to Wiedefield, the chance of a fire was very low. So it's hard to explain the closure on the basis of urgency alone."

But low isn't impossible. Suppose the DC area lost all ground based radar coverage. They'd shut down the airports immediately and suspend all operations until the radars were back up. The odds of a midair collision would still be exceedingly low because the aircraft are equipped with their own sensor packages and avoidance equipment that doesn't rely on center or airport radars. Operations would largely be handled like an uncontrolled GA field.

But the traveling public and the operators wouldn't go for it at all, because just the idea of a major accident would terrify people. Nevermind there's been less than ten mid-air collisions in all of American commercial aviation history and most of them involved planes operating inside controlled airspace with active radar coverage. (That is, the exact conditions that were designed to prevent mid-airs.)

by Another Nick on Mar 17, 2016 4:16 pm • linkreport

Ideally, Metro should be available like the NYC subway. But it needs serious work. You could do a shut down on weekend days, and from e.g. 10am to 4pm until things got sorted out. Adding buses that parallel the system during an outage, and only stops at stations, would alleviate the impact.

Long term, they will have to build a new Potomac crossing and add a track to the busiest sectors. But that will be very expensive.

by SJE on Mar 17, 2016 4:28 pm • linkreport

I'd recommend Metro look at shutting down every night at 7 PM and every weekend for 6 months and running 'dedicated' bus routes that follow the subway until they can clear up accumulated technical debt.

The workers can't possible do what they need in the 4 hours per night they got, they need a full shift and they need a solid weekend where they can shut down an entire line until it's brought up to speed.

by pat b on Mar 17, 2016 8:30 pm • linkreport

Honestly good for him taking a major step like that. It's Wiedefield's job to save a sinking ship basically and it won't happen unless bold decisions are made and drastic steps are taken. He deserves our support as long as he's trying to save the system.

by hoyasaxa on Mar 18, 2016 10:59 am • linkreport

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