The third rail. Image by Beau Finley used with permission.

A Metro employee suffered a non-life-threatening electrical injury after a tool he was using came into contact with the third rail outside of West Falls Church early in the morning on October 31st, according to WMATA radio and independently confirmed. This incident has not been previously reported by Metro or by local media.

The third rail carries high-voltage electricity which moves Metro’s trains. A series of human errors appear to have been a possible cause leading to this incident, which is at least the fourth to occur on the railroad this year.

A series of errors, culminating in an accident

A preliminary investigation has revealed there were a number of failures which could have contributed to the injury.

The employee in charge of the work area, known as the Roadway Worker In Charge (RWIC), failed to verify that the third rail was de-energized in the entire area. The ROCC rail controller de-energized the wrong section of track, and failed to verify on their display that power to the entire work zone was turned off.

Also, no rubber mats were placed over the third rail, which would have provided a layer of protection for workers if one were to fall or accidentally contact the power source.

We do not yet have an exact timeline of the various incidents, but it appears the employee was injured around 4am and was subsequently taken to Inova Fairfax hospital by a track supervisor, according to ROCC & MTPD radio reports. An employee in Metro’s Safety department was notified and initiated an internal investigation.

A two-sentence statement from ATU Local 689, which represents Metro workers, confirms that the union is investigating the incident but does not have further comment at this time.

Metro’s spokesperson Richard Jordan declined to provide further information about the incident, saying, “Because the investigation is ongoing, we are unable to comment on causal factors at this time. Also, please note the employee was not ‘electrocuted.’ He sustained an electrical injury.”

A safety measure which could have prevented this wasn’t in place

While we don’t know exactly what errors led to the accident, we do know that there were a series of oversights that night.

The RWIC received permission to start working in the work area shortly after 1am on October 31st after confirming that the third rail was de-energized at a location on the east side of the work zone. However, it appears that the RWIC did not check the entire area. The west side of the work zone stayed ‘hot’ far longer than it should have. This was the first error.

The RWIC notified the Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC) that the third rail on the west side of his work zone was still energized two hours later, at approximately 3:30am. Once the ROCC de-energized the additional section of the track, the RWIC was able to confirm that power in the entire work location was de-energized–for real this time. While this is a serious safety hazard by itself, it appears to have been a separate oversight than the one that led to the employee injury later in the morning.

The location of the gap in the third rail of both the inbound and outbound tracks on the Orange Line between Dunn Loring and West Falls Church is visible in the center of this aerial photograph. The center parallel white lines show the fiberglass coverboards which go over the third rail and protect it from accumulating snow and rain from above.

The Orange Line between Dunn Loring and West Falls Church. Image by Bing Maps.

On either side of the gap, sets of faded-orange ‘boots’ are visible as well; these covers help insulate the power cabling inside and they indicate where cables run between the third rail underground to the traction power substations and tie breaker stations which power the system.

Metro procedures typically dictate that when setting up a work zone, the status of the third rail must be checked across all gaps like this one. However, it’s unclear whether or not this was done properly.

The track work was cleared up by the time trains started carrying passengers at 5am on Tuesday.

Electrical injuries are all too common for Metro workers

Sadly, this incident marks at least the third person to be shocked on active Metrorail track in 2017:

  • Two Metro employees were injured and one sustained a shock from the third rail in January outside of West Hyattsville
  • An individual working on one of the two Metro revenue collection trains received a shock in September at NoMa-Gallaudet when a bridge plate over which a cart was being transported moved, causing the individual to fall and make contact with electrical equipment
  • At least one rail car mechanic appears to have also been shocked earlier in September when working with the 7000-series railcars

It is unclear specifically why the third rail was permitted to stay energized in one portion of the active work zone after it was safe to do so, and why the ROCC controllers did not act upon the visual indications they would have seen on their displays showing where on the railroad the third rail was energized.

Leaders of ATU Local 689, Metro’s largest employee union, have previously expressed concerns about unsafe working conditions. Jackie Jeter, the union's president, suggested at a recent Metro board meeting that workers could initiate a safety stand-down, refusing to work under what they say are unsafe conditions.


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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.