Posts about Metro Safety
asked passengers not to open emergency doors. One did on a recent Green Line train at Shaw, creating delays. Reader Bitter Brew posted more details of what happened, and says the biggest problem was incomprehensible announcements and no other information from Metro staff. Here's Bitter Brew's comment:
What should you do [on Metro] when the crackling, incomprehensible intercom says something that sounds like "evacuate"?
My girlfriend was in the car where they opened the doors. She said the intercom and speakers, as with so many Metro cars, barely worked.
They stood there in the dark for over 20 minutes, with the typical semi-comprehensible Metro announcements. First "**static** be **static** momentarily," which we can all translate as Metro's favorite lie. Then "***static** hold **static** control ***static***." Five minutes later, "**static** something brakes **static** apologize **static** delay."
Then a Metro employee came through the car from one end to the other, saying nothing, and not responding to anyone's questions. A couple more minutes of silence. Then "**static** evacuate **static** train **static** something safety."
At that point, a buzz went up through the car. "Did he say 'evacuate'?" someone asked. That's when a knot of passengers by a door began to discuss whether they should open it and evacuate. Why? Because Metro told them to evacuate.
After another minute or two with no more announcements and no sign of any Metro personnel, they began to open the door. And just after they opened it, someone from Metro finally came in from the front of the car and began giving instructions to offload that way.
If Metro is unable and unwilling to communicate with passengers during its frequent lengthy breakdowns, or is going to make unclear announcements with words like "emergency" and "evacuate," it can't blame passengers for following the instructions they do have. And it shouldn't
This Australian video, which has gone viral worldwide, features a catchy tune and an amusing set of things not to do which can kill you. Get to the end and it takes on a decidedly transit-oriented bent.
As you discover, this is actually a PSA by Melbourne's Metro transit agency to convince people not to stand too close to train platforms or try to drive or walk across tracks.
Can you imagine a US transit agency, even one of the most clever like LA Metro, doing this? Wouldn't it be great if our US Metro agencies could be so clever?
Last week, Metro introduced a new policy: after pulling into the station, train operators must wait 5 seconds before opening the doors. Ostensibly, this would give them time to ensure the train is properly berthed. This policy won't actually solve that problem. But it will delay riders.
While Metro denies that any specific incident caused the change, the timing suggests Metro is reacting to last month's close call where a Green Line operator opened the train doors before the train had completely pulled into the station.
Metro has had 4 door-opening incidents over the last several months, and several more in the past couple years, the results of both technical glitches and operator errors. This new policy does nothing to actually address these root causes, but will add hours of travel time to Washington area commutes.
Where did this issue come from?
Up until 2008, trains running in automatic mode pulled into the stations, and, when the sensors detected the train was berthed correctly, the doors opened automatically.
But several times early that year, train doors opened on the opposite side of the train from the platform. Metro determined that this problem in the automatic system was happening because of the power upgrades needed for 8-car trains, and shut off the automatic door-opening feature.
Until the problem was fixed, all operators would have to open the doors manually. In most stations, this meant that riders had to wait a couple seconds for the operator to walk across the cab to the left side.
Unfortunately, this created a new problem. Since the operators could manually open the doors, it became possible for them to open the doors before the train was fully in a station. Since Metro operates a mix of 6- and 8-car trains and the automatic system no longer ensures trains are fully berthed, a few operators stopped their 8-car trains at the then-in-use 6-car marker and opened their doors with the 8th car still in the tunnel.
So, in 2009, Metro instituted the "eights to the gate" mnemonic solution. This was supposed to remind the operators of 8-car trains that they had to pull all the way to the front of the platform. Of course, incidents continued to happen.
Then, in the wake of the Fort Totten collision, WMATA changed their policy again, requiring all trains, regardless of length, to pull to the front of the platform. At some stations, this has exacerbated crowding. At Gallery Place, for instance, westbound Red Line trains that are only 6 cars long stop beyond the area where passengers transferring from the Green and Yellow lines come up. This usually leads to a mad dash for the last door of the last car when the train arrives.
And yet, even with that policy, where every train should pull to the head of the platform every time, there have been a few instances where doors open too early. Hence the new policy.
Is it worth the cost?
It's true that this 5-second delay could reduce the chance that an operator will open the doors in the wrong place. But it does not prevent it from happening.
The benefit is questionable. These events, while serious, are very rare. A solution that reduces the chances of this happening is welcome, but this particular solution still depends on the operator thinking clearly. That's the same result the other changes have tried to create, and they haven't solved the problem.
It's great Metro is trying to stop this from happening again. But without a true way to actually prevent the operator from opening the train doors unsafely, riders will just face yet another inconvenient policy change in a few months.
Why is this so bad?
@WMATA asked on Twitter Monday, if this new policy reduces the chance of a potentially life-threatening situation, how can it be a bad thing?
It's important to work hard to make the system safe, but this change doesn't eliminate the danger. Even if it reduces it some, it's important to weigh the amount it reduces an already-unlikely event against the guaranteed cost.
Sure, 5 seconds doesn't sound like much, but it adds up. A Red Line train running from Glenmont to Shady Grove will lose over 2 minutes due to this. And that still might not sound like much, but as we add delay, we risk more train back-ups, and schedule adjustments, meaning riders miss connections.
Last Friday, for example, the extra 20-30 seconds my Red Line trip took made me barely miss my Green Line train at Fort Totten. That meant I had to wait 7 minutes for the next train. On the average, most riders aren't going to barely miss connections they otherwise would have made. But the fact that it becomes a distinct possibility means many will add some time to their schedules.
The daily delay for a single rider may not be a whole lot, but it adds up for the region. With daily weekday boardings around 740,000 and a conservative estimated average trip length of 7 stations, the new policy will waste 26 million seconds, or about 7000 hours of Washingtonians' time every day. This seems like a lot of lost productivity for a measure that doesn't actually prevent the dangerous situation.
What's a real solution?
Solving the problem means making door operations fail-safe, not making operators do more mnemonic exercises at stations.
In the London Underground, for example, if a train, for whatever reason, doesn't detect the platform sensor, the operator can manually open the doors. But to do so, they must push a special override button first, then push a second special button to open the doors. If the train doesn't detect the platform, the operator cannot open the doors using the regular method.
On Metro, the trains have a similar platform detection system. But it's only operable when the doors are in automatic mode. When the doors are in manual, the train's computer systems do not require an override, and the operator can open the doors whenever the train is stationary (whether it's in a station or not).
It won't matter if Metro requires all operators to do a few rounds of heads, fingers, knees, and toes at every station stop before opening the doors. If the doors don't have a safety mechanism in place, it's only a matter of time until a train operator opens the doors in the wrong place again.
Now, Metro may have determined that if trains will soon be returning to automatic operation, that this sort of feature is not required. But no one at the agency has been willing to publicly guess at a date for returning to automatic operation. Besides, some trains will be operated in manual mode from time to time. And regardless, this sort of safety mechanism should be in place.
In June of 2009, Metro's then-spokesperson Steve Taubenkiebel was quoted in the Washington Post about the unsafe door operations: "We wish we had an answer as to why this continues to happen."
Unfortunately, more than three years later, riders still ask the same question. We wish Metro had an answer too. This new rule is certainly not it.
Ultimately, this just punishes riders for the sins of a miniscule number of train operators. And to add insult to injury, the punishment won't even ensure that the crime won't happen again.
Today is the 3rd anniversary of Metro's Red Line crash. Three years later, residents still consider Metro maintenance and reliability the top regional priority. Transparency and management effectiveness also came up as a very important issue.
In a recent focus group, respondents ranked the problem of deferred Metrorail maintenance as the top transportation challenge facing the region, ahead of traffic congestion.
Respondents also said that finding funding to repair transit, roads and bridges was the most important strategy to pursue, with circumferential transit behind that. Highways like an Outer Beltway (and more bike sharing) brought up the rear.
I'll be on NewsTalk this morning from 10-10:15 to talk about Metro's progress;
you can watch the segment live the archived video is online.
Metro maintenance rates as number one challenge
AmericaSpeaks conducted the focus group for the Transportation Planning Board on June 2. It recruited 41 people from around the region, whose geography and demographics fairly closely match the overall regional makeup, except that there weren't as many people in the highest income bracket as in the general population.
The organizers posed a series of transportation challenges and had respondents vote, using small remote controls at their seats, on how important each one is on a scale of 1-5 where 5 was the most important. Here are the average scores:
|Deferred Metrorail maintenance causes unreliability||4.62|
|The transportation system is too congested||4.36|
|Many people cannot access affordable and convenient transit||4.22|
|Many residential areas have limited transportation options||4.11|
|Aging roadways need repair||4.11|
|Bottlenecks are causing delays of inter-regional movement||4.00|
|Development and transportation are often not well-coordinated||3.89|
|Natural resources are threatened by transportation and growth||3.89|
|Traffic incidents are a major source of delays||3.87|
|Travel times to & from airports are increasingly unreliable||3.59|
|Pedestrian and bicycle fatalities are a growing concern||3.56|
|Air quality and public health standards are getting stricter||3.14|
69% of respondents ranked Metrorail maintenance as "very important," with nobody ranking it "low" or "very low." The much lower ratings for pedestrian and bicycle fatalities point to potential challenges in dealing with road safety; commuters may not be very eager to accept speed enforcement and traffic calming if they don't think that crashes are a big problem.
"Fix it first" is clear; suburban transit beats Outer Beltway
In a later part of the session, organizers asked participants about 6 potential strategies to improve transportation, and got these ratings:
|Secure Dependable Sources of Funding to Ensure "State of Good Repair" for Highways and Bridges||4.45|
|Create a Dedicated Regional Funding Source to Ensure "State of Good Repair" for Metrorail Trains and Facilities||4.43|
|Connect Existing Metrorail Lines with High-Quality, Circumferential Transit||3.51|
|Improve Pedestrian Facilities and Safety Around Bus Stops||3.29|
|Expand the Region's Highway Network, Possibly Including New Potomac River Crossings||3.05|
Clearly, repairing both roads and rails is the highest priority for people in this focus group. The perpetual boosters of the Outer Beltway, who have started talking about the idea as "new Potomac River bridges" instead, will likely be disappointed to find weak support for this compared to circumferential transit.
At the same time, sustainable transportation advocates may be disappointed at how bike sharing came in last. That is, at least, a far less expensive solution than most of the others.
Metro fares aren't that confusing after all
One other tidbit: Despite the common suggestions to create a flat or simpler Metro fare, participants in the focus group didn't seem to feel that the fare structure was any problem. In one section, they came up with their own sets of transportation challenges at tables, then voted on them.
In one set, someone came up with "Metro system, including cost structure, is hard to understand," but nobody voted for that one; "Lack of funding to support maintenance or expanding transportation options" got 43% on that vote, and "Existing funds are managed poorly, limiting quality of transit" got 34%.
Later, a potential strategy to "Simplify and/or restructure Metro fares" only got 4 votes out of 74 (I assume people could vote multiple times); the top choices were "Increase incentives and improve infrastructure for the use of transit, carpooling, walking, and biking," "Require agency transparency to ensure accountability," and "Encourage employers to support telework and alternative work schedules."
Transparency is on people's minds
In the aforementioned question, the way WMATA manages its money is clearly an issue people worry about, coming in second, with 34% of votes, to the need to just have enough money to make repairs, at 43%.
Later, the tables came up with 3 challenges around maintenance, repair and safety of transportation: "Lack of funding," "Lack of transparency, trust in management, and maintenance oversight," and "The general public doesn't realize the extent of maintenance needs." Here, again, the votes came out similarly. Lack of funding got 56% of the votes, while lack of transparency and oversight got 38%.
The two absolutely go together. If WMATA can show the public that it is managing repair funds effectively, riders and jurisdictions will be more willing to increase funding to achieve a state of good repair. Communication and customer service has improved, but it still can be better. WMATA remains a fairly secretive organization that often acts like riders don't need to know what's going on beyond the most basic customer information.
This mindset will remain a political obstacle until this CEO or a future one makes it a priority to reform the insular culture and turn riders into advocates instead of frustrated skeptics or angry critics. Because no matter how pressing Washingtonians think Metro's state of repair is, they'll be hard pressed to cough up more money to an agency they can't trust.
Reader Andrew wonders what will become of Metro's 1000-series railcars, the oldest in the system, once they are replaced with new 7000-series:
What's going to happen to the 1000 series Metro cars when the 7000 series finally arrives? I can't imagine Metro plans to store all of them in a railyard. I suppose it's most likely that they will sell them for scrap, but it might be cool if you could do a post about potential uses for the cars. Ideas such as:The new 7000-series railcars will start coming in 2013. The first 64 of them will allow Metro to expand its fleet to run the first phase of the Silver Line, to Wiehle Avenue (though the cars themselves won't necessarily all run on the Silver Line). The rest of the current 364-car order will replace the 300 1000-series, which are very old and not as safe as the newer cars (though still safer than driving).
- A cool low income housing project
- Art projects
- Turn a train into some unique restaurant or something
Dan Stessel, WMATA spokesperson, said the 364th 7000-series car, which will replace the last 1000-series, is scheduled for 2016. That assumes nothing changes; he notes, "While we have not adjusted the delivery schedule due to this year's events in Japan, we are closely monitoring supply chains and will be in a better position late this year to know what, if any, impact there may be to the production timeline."
So what will happen with the 1000s? Kurt Raschke has some thoughts:
They'll almost certainly be scrapped, like PATH is doing now with the PA1-4 cars now that all of the PA-5s have been delivered. It would be excellent if at least one married pair were to be preserved (preferably 1000/1001 at minimum), but today's WMATA is not a terribly nostalgic agency.But what if some organizations could buy entire cars? What ideas do you have for interesting ways to use them?
Then there's the issue of what to do with the preserved cars; you could send them to the National Capital Trolley Museum, but I don't know if they have appropriate facilities for them (considering that they are a trolley museum), and I doubt WMATA would just leave them on the property indefinitely.
As far as using the scrapped cars for various projects, that may or may not happen. As an example, London Underground is in the process of scrapping the 1967 Tube Stock fleet, and the company doing the scrapping has been instructed by Transport for London to not permit any "sizable pieces" off the property (to include whole train cars). It's not clear why this is, but it may have to do with liability, or accounting or tax issues.
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