In the midst of the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into January’s fatal smoke incident in a Metrorail tunnel, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority began taking the first steps to improve safety, officials say.
During a hearing on June 23 and 24, NTSB found that Metro has no smoke detection system in its tunnels to identify the source of smoke, according to Randall Grooman, Metro’s acting assistant general manager for Transit Infrastructure and Engineering Services. Although Metro has not yet installed these smoke detectors, officials said the transit system completed a report outlining details on installing smoke detectors on February 27.
This report is one of ten recommendations Rob Troup, Metro deputy general manager, ordered following the smoke incident that killed one and injured more than 80 passengers.
“The ten items that we have identified so far are actions Metro is taking now based on our collaborative review with NTSB,” Troup said in a news release.
NTSB recommendations are typically released after the investigation is complete, which can often take up to a full year, said Peter Knudson, NTSB spokesman. However, four urgent safety recommendations were released in the middle of the investigation.
“We can issue them at any point we feel they’re absolutely urgent during an investigation,” Knudson said. “We certainly expect to have more recommendations come out by the end of, if not throughout, the rest of the investigation.”
In April, Troup announced four additional “early-action safety items” in response to the smoke incident near L’Enfant Plaza, according to a Metro news release.
Morgan Dye, Metro spokeswoman, said the transit system is “on track” to complete the four additional safety improvements, but could not identify their progress or an estimate for when they will be finished.
As outlined in the news release, the four additional early-action items Troup issued were “initiating a multiyear maintenance program to replace or rehabilitate all 88,044 lights in Metro tunnels beginning next month,” “creating a dedicated maintenance crew to continuously clear tunnel passageways of debris, equipment or other potential obstructions across Metro’s 100 miles of tunnel segments,” “beginning this summer, review protocols of the alarms in the ROCC with the goal of separating critical alarms from non-critical notifications” and “establishing a quality audit process for ventilation system testing to ensure compliance with established maintenance and testing practices.”
Of the 10 recommendations Troup originally ordered, the first involved rewriting Metro’s standard operating procedure for when trains encounter smoke, a much-debated issue during the NTSB hearing following January’s death of a woman from smoke inhalation. The new procedure calls for allowing train operators to determine whether it is necessary to turn off air intake systems when encountering smoke in tunnels or stations. Under the former procedure, the Rail Operations Control Center would instruct train operators on whether and when to turn them off. This item was completed on time, by Jan. 22, according to Dye.
Another item was related to rewriting Metro’s standard operating procedures. Troup recommended that it be rewritten to increase discipline in the ROCC to avoid “unnecessary interactions” during emergencies. This recommendation was to “ensure that ROCC employees stay at their own desks and not engage those managing the incident.” It was completed on time, by January 26, Dye said.
A schedule was made on January 26 for the three years following January’s smoke incident that outlined quarterly system-wide emergency drills for Metro employees and Metro Transit Police, Dye said.
Another item concerning emergency readiness that Troup suggested was for Metro to add better signage to identify emergency exits, according to a news release just days after January’s incident. Metro completed this project by February 13, its estimated completion date, Dye said.
Several items Troup ordered involved improving the third rail jumper cables. These improvements were completed in February, according to Dye. However, there were several third rail arcing incidents in recent months, causing smoke and fire. NTSB investigators identified several electrical pieces connecting the third rail to a power supply that were improperly installed, which can cause short-circuiting when water enters crevices in the third rail. As part of NTSB’s ongoing investigation into January’s incident, these cables were also found to be missing “sealing sleeves,” which keep moisture from entering these crevices.
“The NTSB has learned that WMATA does not have a program to ensure that the sleeves, which are in its design specifications, are used and installed properly,” said Knudson.
Because NTSB is not a regulatory authority, it cannot force any transit system to abide by the recommendations it issues, Knudson said. However, the board has a safety advocacy committee that checks in on the progress each system is making, he added.
These recommendations are “performance-based,” so the board determines only the final suggested outcome, but does not outline the best way to go about doing so.
NTSB issued 29 urgent recommendations following the fatal 2009 Red Line collision that killed nine passengers and injured scores more. Since then, four recommendations still remain uncompleted, including ensuring the lead car is “equipped with an operating onboard event recorder,” according to NTSB’s recommendation issued in August 2010.
“The remaining four recommendations involved longer-duration projects, such as replacement of Metro’s entire 1000-series fleet with new 7000-series railcars,” Dye said.