Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Metro Safety

Transit


Automatic trains will return to the Red Line but still won't stop in the center of the platform

This morning, Metro started running eight-car trains in automatic mode on the Red Line once again. Six-car trains will resume in a few months once Metro can make a software change to make them stop at the end of the platform instead of the center.


Photo by the author.

The Metrorail system was built to start and stop trains at platforms automatically, but WMATA turned off the system in 2009 after the Fort Totten crash because of problems with the signaling system. WMATA has now finished rebuilding the signals on the Red Line, and other lines will follow in 2017.

Many riders had hoped the return to automatic operation would mean the end of the practice of stopping at the end of platforms, since it exacerbates crowding at many stations that have entrances at one end, especially at Union Station and Gallery Place.

I originally wrote about this in September 2014. The following is an updated version of that article.

At the time of the original article, Metro spokesperson Dan Stessel commented that six-car trains stopping at the head of the platform wouldn't be an issue because the agency hoped to be running 100% eight-car trains by 2020.

However, recent developments suggest that six-car trains may be around for many more years, since Maryland and DC now want WMATA to use the remainder of the 7000 series order to replace the 2000 and 5000 series instead of expanding the fleet.

Why do trains pull to the end of the platform?

The policy of requiring trains to pull all the way to the head of the platform instead of stopping in the center stems from a spate of events in 2008 and 2009 where the operators of 8-car trains forgot they were operating 8-car trains and stopped at the 6-car marker. This meant that the last car was still in the tunnel.

Prior to the 2009 collision, WMATA operated all 8-car trains in manual mode because upgrades that would stop trains more precisely hadn't been completed.

After operators opened their doors with the last car in the tunnel a few times, Metro only required operators to pull all the way forward on days when large numbers of 8-car trains were in operation (like for the Cherry Blossom Festival). After the system went to 100% manual operation in the wake of the Fort Totten collision, the practice became standard.

Most trains could have eight cars soon, anyway, making this moot

I asked Dan Stessel why Metro would continue the practice once ATO was turned back on. He says that for one, the other five lines will continue to operate under manual control, and some operators move between lines. Additionally, from time to time trains will be operated under manual control, so the agency wants to keep the practice standard.

Metro hopes to exercise its option for additional 7000-series railcars soon (assuming the contributing jurisdictions pony up the funding). If Metro succeeds at getting more railcars, by the time ATO returns to the rest of the system in 2017, Stessel says, Metro may be close to operating 100% 8-car trains anyway.

Why the computer can't open the doors

This is basically still necessary because Metro doesn't have a failsafe to keep forgetful operators from opening their doors when some cars are still off the platform. Without one, the agency doesn't feel safe trusting operators to know where to stop their trains.

There used to be a system that prevented operators from opening doors in the wrong place: they didn't usually open the doors at all. As recently as early 2008, Metro train doors opened immediately and automatically when a train was properly berthed in the station. But power upgrades created electromagnetic interference that disrupted this system, making doors occasionally open on the wrong side, so Metro had to turn it off.

To open the doors manually, the operator sometimes had to walk across the cab, adding some delay, but not that much. Unfortunately, some operators still occasionally opened the doors manually on the wrong side, leading Metro to require them to wait an extra five seconds and adding even more delay.

Return to ATO isn't fixing everything, but it's a good step

Without the auto-door feature and operators still stopping trains at the end of the platform, automatic train operation will be less of a victory than some had hoped for.

Still, the return to ATO will mean smoother rides for customers, less wear and tear on the railcars, and less energy consumption. It's also more efficient and generally quicker, which means that riders may see faster and more reliable trips in some cases.

The fact that Metro feels confident bringing back automatic trains on the Red Line is good for one very important reason beyond the customer experience, though: safety.

The underlying cause of the Fort Totten crash was a failure of the track circuit system that keeps trains spaced apart. Metro built a backup system to check for wrong-side failures like the one at Fort Totten, which reduced the probability of another crash. But all the track circuits and modules needed to be replaced to ensure that the crash circumstances couldn't recur.

That has now happened on the Red Line, and is about halfway complete on the rest of the system. It's a major step forward for the safety of riders on the system.

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Pedestrians


Media reports downplay the dangers of driving while sensationalizing everything else

The media pays a lot more attention to bicycle and pedestrian fatalities than it does car deaths. If reporters went beyond sensationalism to give commuters more accurate, thorough information, people could make smarter choices about how to get around.


Photo by Dystopos on Flickr.

One transportation myth the media often fuels is that driving is unusually safe. Car crashes are actually the nation's leading cause of death for school-age children, and they're much more likely than, say, attacks by strangers. Yet while some parents get flack for letting their children walk home unsupervised, thousands drive their children around every day.

Another myth is that bicycling is unusually dangerous. 2014 was great for bicycling, but tough for bicycling in the media. One widely-reported story, based on information from the Governors Highway Safety Association, highlighted an increase in bicycle fatalities. Reporters picked up the story and editors wrote alarming headlines.

The truth is that increased bicycling leads to safer streets with lower fatality rates. This happens so reliably that researchers call it "the safety in numbers effect." While some did mention that ridership is increasing faster than fatalities, meaning that bicycling is getting safer, nearly every report ran with an alarming headline.

Sometimes, people flat-out omit the facts

Another story, based on a report by researchers at Washington State University, concerned an increased percentage of bicycle-related head injuries in cities with bikeshare (public bike rental) systems. Once again, the media took the bait. This story didn't even pass the laugh test for cycling advocates, as it's well known that bikeshare increases cycling and, again, more cycling means safer cycling.

Actually, the Washington State University study was downright misleading: The authors failed to mention that cities with bikeshare saw reductions in all types of injuries, leaving readers to do the math and to tease out the good news buried in the data. The authors—one of whom, F.P. Rivara, was also a source of the myth that cycle helmets are "85 percent effective," a debunked claim that no longer appears on US government web sites—instead focused on misleading injury percentages, coming to an alarming conclusion.

While it is hard to find fault with reporters for being misled, I do fault them for jumping on yet another bicycle danger story. As of June 2014, the DC and New York City bikeshare systems had recorded 15.75 million trips with no fatalities. This figure flies in the face of the mayhem some predicted would come along with increases in people riding bikes.

Nationally, walking and driving are far more dangerous than transit

Of the 29,000 non-motorcyclist traffic and transit fatalities in the US in 2012, about 23,000 (80%) were people riding in or driving cars, 4,700 (16%) were people walking, 700 (2%) were people cycling, and 200 (1%) were people riding transit.

The only corresponding "mode share" percentages we have come from commuting: In 2012, about 90% of people in the US got to work by car or van, 3% walked, 1% cycled and 5% took transit. We unfortunately don't have concrete numbers for how people get around outside of work, but the numbers we do have suggest that walking is very dangerous (studies show that suburbs are dangerous places to walk), followed by bicycling, driving and transit.

Personally, I see a disconnect between media coverage and the numbers, with walking and driving under-emphasized. While these numbers are not representative of transit-friendly Alexandria, we are not immune to sketchy reporting. We simply do not have straight-forward information and the information that we do have lacks context.

A good first step would be for reporters to provide monthly tallies of transportation fatalities and locations (the City Paper is working on just a list, with the help of the people behind Struck in DC) instead of gravitating toward stories featuring danger, excitement, and minimal alarm to car-driving readers.

Editors are missing an opportunity by not giving us the information we need to make wise transportation choices based on how we personally balance risk and reward.

On Saturday, a version of this post ran as Jonathan's monthly column for Alexandria News.

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Transit


We need Metro, but it drives us crazy, too

Metro again is lurching toward crisis. A fatal smoke incident suddenly showed that General Manager Richard Sarles's pronouncements about a new safety culture are, at best, suspect. Rising costs and declining ridership (thanks partly to cuts in federal transit benefits) begat another budget shortfall.


Photo by jimhavard on Flickr.

Montgomery County and the District are talking about creating new transit authorities amid a general trend of more local bus services in place of Metrobus. Meanwhile, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority board is interviewing candidates to replace Sarles.

We need Metro. The region's economic success depends on Metro's success. Metro brought new life to downtown DC and many suburban areas, such as Arlington County and Silver Spring, and today it represents the best path to grow Tysons Corner without crippling the roads with traffic.

Since construction wound down, Metro has been underfunded for maintenance, additional railcars, buses, electric power upgrades and yard space. But riders, elected officials, and even professionals inside city and state departments of transportation are frustrated.

Read my latest column in the Washington Post.

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Transit


What went wrong with Metro's emergency response?

Last Monday's Metro incident left one person dead and many hospitalized. While the National Transportation Safety Board has confirmed that the smoke came from an electrical arcing event, there's still a lot we don't know about why passengers trapped in the tunnel couldn't get out more quickly.


Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.

Initial reports indicate that while Train 302's operator and DC Fire and EMS (DCFEMS) followed established protocols, poor communication within Metro and between Metro and DCFEMS caused the slow evacuation. Additionally, issues with the ventilation system may have worsened the smoke.

If we're going to look at how effective and efficient both Metro and DCFEMS were in responding, it helps to have context for what an emergency response for this kind of situation should look like.

Emergency response took far longer than it should have

Metro's procedures require that a train operator immediately report smoke or fire in the trackbed to the Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC). When this happens, ROCC is responsible for calling the fire department, which generally starts the process of getting emergency responders to the scene.

Fires along the Metro tracks are usually caused by the third rail, which provides the electrical power needed to move the train. Accordingly, Metro policy dictates that the ROCC shut off third rail power as soon as possible. However, Metro's procedures do allow for ROCC to leave power on long enough to allow the train to retreat back to the previous station (if the operator is able to stop short of the smoke) or continue to the next station (if the train has already passed the smoke).

It appears that Metro may have left the third rail energized for so long because Train 302's operator was trying, in vain, to return to L'Enfant Plaza

In addition to the workers at the control center, firefighters have the ability to manually disable power to the third rail by pressing a button on the blue light emergency trip stations, which are located every 800 feet along the tracks. But before firefighters can actually enter the trackbed, DCFEMS requires firefighters to get confirmation from the ROCC that the power actually has gone off.

Firefighters arrived at L'Enfant Plaza at 3:31 pm, nine minutes after Metro called to report heavy smoke in the station. By that time, the train had already been stuck in the tunnel for approximately 16 minutes. Another 13 minutes elapsed before ROCC confirmed that third rail power was off, though it appears rescue personnel entered the tunnel before that happened.

Communication was ineffective

Metro's emergency response procedures require ROCC to coordinate all activities with a designated commander (usually Metro Transit Police) at the station. This designated commander must then coordinate with the fire department on the scene.

DCFEMS reports that their traditional radios were not working inside the station or tunnel, which made it difficult to communicate information about the location of the disabled train, the need for more help, and the status of third rail power. And while in this clip, the train operator is clearly in communications with ROCC, it does not seem that the ROCC was able to communicate with anyone at L'Enfant Plaza. These communication failures likely slowed and limited the effectiveness of the emergency response.

The train operator didn't evacuate the train immediately

Because the train operator was able to stop the train short of the smoke, Metro's procedures called for him to retreat back to L'Enfant.

Since the tunnels can be dangerous places, it's obvious why Metro wants evacuation, especially without rescuers on scene, to be a last resort. But if retreating is not an option, train operators can evacuate passengers into the tunnel after receiving authorization from the ROCC; they don't have to wait on firefighters to arrive.

Several videos have captured audio of the train operator assuring passengers that he would return the train to the L'Enfant Plaza platform, where they could alight. But that wasn't an option because another train that couldn't move (possibly because the train operator had evacuated the station) was already on the platform. And even if the other train hadn't been there, it's possible that a lack of third rail power or passengers leaving the train on their own would have prevented an attempt to return to the station.

Firefighters eventually evacuated those who didn't self-evacuate though the tunnel. Metro Transit Police reported via Twitter that evacuations were complete an hour and 30 minutes after the first reports of smoke.

One firefighter has speculated that more people didn't leave the train cars on their own because the emergency door releases on the 3000-series cars are hidden.

Measures to clear the tunnel of smoke either didn't follow protocol or didn't work

ROCC didn't cut power to the part of the third rail where the arcing event occurred until 35 minutes after the train was stranded in the tunnel. During this time, the arcing continued, and continued to generate smoke. If ROCC had cut third rail power shortly after the train became stuck, it's possible that there would have been much less smoke since the arcing would have stopped.

Only a minute after the train operator stopped the train in the tunnel, ROCC did activate Metro's exhaust fans, which can clear smoke inside of a station or tunnels. But these fans may not have been functioning properly when responders first arrived at the scene.

Nobody could have prevented harm altogether, but Metro has a lot of room for improvement

It's unlikely that any response would have gotten riders out unscathed. Even passengers who quickly evacuated from the platform at L'Enfant Plaza had to be treated for smoke inhalation. But Metro's response likely depended too much on getting the train back to L'Enfant Plaza even when it became obvious that that strategy was becoming futile.

It will likely be six months to a year before NTSB officials release their findings on last Monday's incident (though they did release a preliminary report). On Saturday, Mayor Muriel Bowser released an initial report on DCFEMS's response.

It's already clear that Metro could have done better. Hopefully, new procedures and better safety training will come out of this tragedy. But it's a shame that this wasn't prevented in the first place.

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Transit


Topic of the week: What's next for WMATA after Sarles?

WMATA General Manager/CEO Richard Sarles will retire in January. Has he left WMATA better off than he left it? What should the agency look for in a successor?

We asked our contributors for their input. Also, I talked about these questions with Jennifer Donelan on Channel 8's NewsTalk Friday:

As I said on the show, I think Sarles provided a stability and a focus on safety that the agency desperately needed to regain confidence from both riders and public officials after the crash. He's put the system back on a solid footing.

Metro has to keep being safe, for sure, but also has different challenges going forward. WMATA needs public support to get the funding it needs for eight-car trains and a new Rosslyn station. It has to win support for roadway changes to improve bus service. All of these require relating to people and working with leaders outside the walls of the Jackson Graham Building.

Winning public support also will require doing more on customer service, including actually beefing up service as well as reducing problems between employees and riders. As Donelan noted in the interview, Sarles is not a highly-visible public figure, and WMATA may need someone who is more comfortable talking to the press and to the public.

Michael Perkins pointed out that many challenges face WMATA. He said tasks over the next decade include:

  • Receive the 7000 series railcars and integrate them into operation
  • Implement the [next generation] electronic fare program
  • Test and integrate [Silver Line] phase 2
  • Plan and sell the region on some sort of core infrastructure improvement
  • Continue to sell the region and riding public on the Metro rebuilding program
  • Implement signaling repairs and upgrades on lines other than the Red Line
  • Manage a substantial capacity upgrade in bus operation (possibly constructing new bus garage sites or expanding existing sites?)
  • Work with jurisdictions to deliver bus route improvements like dedicated lanes, off-vehicle fare payment, or signal priority
  • Operate the 2nd largest heavy rail transit system in the US
  • Operate one of the largest bus systems in the US
  • All while dealing with more than four funding jurisdictions in a widescreen public fishbowl.
Dan Malouff pointed out that while the system has gotten needed repairs, weekend service in particular has really suffered. How can the agency balance these?
Sarles accomplished a lot, but also had some weaknesses. On the one hand, he got Metro's rebuilding on track, and seemingly solved the safety problems that plagued WMATA during John Catoe's time as General Manager. On the other hand, Sarles often seemed more concerned with trains and tracks than with providing good transit service to riders. Thus, transit service and ridership plummeted whenever track work has been necessary, which seems like pretty much all the time except rush hour.

Hopefully Metro's next GM will continue Sarles' great progress on rebuilding and safety, while doing a better job to remember that better customer service is the whole reason rebuilding is important in the first place. WMATA needs a GM who's committed to minimizing disruptions to riders, to putting out the very best transit service practical, and to fully explaining to customers why and when less-than-stellar service is necessary.

Bottom line: Sarles revolutionized Metro's maintenance and safety cultures. The next GM needs to revolutionize its customer service culture.

What skills and priorities do you think WMATA's next head needs?

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Transit


When WMATA restores automatic train operation, here's what it will mean for riders

Jerky Metro rides are on the way out (on the Red Line, anyway). The bad news is that trains will keep stopping at the end of the platform. Automatic door opening is also not returning for now.


Photo by the author.

As we discussed on Monday, after five years of manual operation, Automatic Train Operation (ATO) will return to the Red Line as soon as March 2015. I spoke to WMATA spokesperson Dan Stessel to get some details about the shift.

Both 6-car and 8-car trains will be able operate in automatic mode thanks to upgrades that will stop trains more precisely. Prior to the Fort Totten crash in 2009, this upgrade was still underway, and Metro operated all 8-car trains in manual mode.

One thing that won't change, however, is that 6-car trains will continue to stop at the 8-car marker at the head of the platform. Many riders had hoped the return to automatic operation would mean the end of that practice, since it exacerbates crowding at many stations, especially at Union Station and Gallery Place.

Why do trains pull to the end of the platform?

The policy of requiring trains to pull all the way to the head of the platform instead of stopping in the center stems from a spate of events in 2008 and 2009 where the operators of 8-car trains forgot they were operating 8-car trains and stopped at the 6-car marker. This meant that the last car was still in the tunnel.

After this happened a few times, Metro only required operators to pull all the way forward on days when large numbers of 8-car trains were in operation (like for the Cherry Blossom Festival). After the system went to 100% manual operation in the wake of the Fort Totten collision, the practice became standard.

Most trains could have eight cars soon, anyway, making this moot

I asked Dan Stessel why Metro would continue the practice once ATO was turned back on. He says that for one, the other five lines will continue to operate under manual control, and some operators move between lines. Additionally, from time to time trains will be operated under manual control, so the agency wants to keep the practice standard.

Metro hopes to exercise its option for additional 7000-series railcars soon (assuming the contributing jurisdictions pony up the funding). If Metro succeeds at getting more railcars, by the time ATO returns to the rest of the system in 2017, Stessel says, Metro may be close to operating 100% 8-car trains anyway.

Why the computer can't open the doors

This is basically still necessary because Metro doesn't have a failsafe to keep forgetful operators from opening their doors when some cars are still off the platform. Without one, the agency doesn't feel safe trusting operators to know where to stop their trains.

There used to be a system that prevented operators from opening doors in the wrong place: they didn't usually open the doors at all. As recently as early 2008, Metro train doors opened immediately and automatically when a train was properly berthed in the station. But power upgrades created electromagnetic interference that disrupted this system, making doors occasionally open on the wrong side, so Metro had to turn it off.

To open the doors manually, the operator sometimes had to walk across the cab, adding some delay, but not that much. Unfortunately, some operators still occasionally opened the doors manually on the wrong side, leading Metro to require them to wait an extra five seconds and adding even more delay.

Return to ATO isn't fixing everything, but it's a good step

Without the auto-door feature and operators still stopping trains at the end of the platform, automatic train operation will be less of a victory than some had hoped for.

Still, the return to ATO will mean smoother rides for customers, less wear and tear on the railcars, and less energy consumption. It's also more efficient and generally quicker, which means that riders may see faster and more reliable trips in some cases.

The fact that Metro feels confident bringing back automatic trains on the Red Line is good for one very important reason beyond the customer experience, though: safety.

The underlying cause of the Fort Totten crash was a failure of the track circuit system that keeps trains spaced apart. Metro built a backup system to check for wrong-side failures like the one at Fort Totten, which reduced the probability of another crash. But all the track circuits and modules needed to be replaced to ensure that the crash circumstances couldn't recur.

That has now happened on the Red Line, and is about halfway complete on the rest of the system. It's a major step forward for the safety of riders on the system.

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Transit


Computers will start driving Red Line trains again

Starting in early October, Metro will turn control of six non-peak Red Line trains over to computers. If all goes well, every Red Line train should be under computer control by March 2015.


Photo by Jesse Alexander on Flickr.

This marks the first return to automatic train operation on Metro's original system since WMATA switched all trains to manual control following the 2009 train crash.

Since then, WMATA has fixed the faulty electric systems responsible for the crash, but only on the Red Line. Fixing the rest of the system will take another three years.

When it works, automatic train operation runs Metrorail more efficiently and smoothly as compared to manual control. That means fewer delays, faster trips, higher passenger capacity, and more comfortable rides.

This is great news to riders who have suffered from motion sickness on manually-driven trains. And it's an important step forward in Metro's long, painful rebuilding process.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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