A 7000-series train passing through Metro Center. Image by the author.

A Red Line train derailed between Farragut North and Metro Center on Monday, January 15 at approximately 6:30 am. None of the 63 passengers onboard were injured. The cause of the derailment appears to have been a cracked rail, but radio issues also hampered investigation and recovery efforts.

Red Line train 106 heading to Glenmont reported to the Metro Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC) around 6:28 am, saying that the train had stopped and he was unable to get it to move. The operator also reported that he could see smoke in the lead car of the train (car 7306). After some initial troubleshooting, the operator was told to walk through the train and look for any cars with brake issues that may be causing the train to be unable to move.

Three of the eight cars of the train derailed during the incident (cars 5, 6, and 7), and Metro believes there may have been a rail break which the train ran over causing the cars to leave the tracks. The ROCC activated fans to suck smoke away through a fan shaft to keep it from entering the station — the same smoke the train operator and personnel at Metro Center had reported.

A Metro Transit Police Department officer happened to be on the same train and contacted the ROCC, saying that he thought the train “probably” derailed and that the train was stuck.

Metro and DC Fire officials walked the train’s passengers back to Metro Center on the trackbed at around 8 am, and DC Fire personnel left the station at around 9 am.

Old issues continue to hamper Metro operations

Radio issues in the tunnel between Farragut North and Metro Center hampered the ROCC’s ability to contact the operator of 106. Audio archives from Broadcastify detail how the ROCC controller had to make multiple attempts to call to the operator to get a response, and the responses from the operator either didn’t go through, or were too garbled for ROCC to understand.

The MTPD officer who reported the derailment contacted the ROCC as opposed to the MTPD dispatcher because he reported having radio issues transmitting messages, and also had no cellular service.

Farragut North has had other radio dead spots in the past, including one in 2016 which caused a train operator to be out of contact with the ROCC for nearly 40 minutes while in the center track just outside the Farragut North station. The delay and lack of PA communications led to two passengers self-evacuating from the train and going to the roadway by themselves.

The ROCC controller at one point asked a train heading to Shady Grove to stop near 106 and attempt to “go direct” to contact him, meaning the radio transmission would go straight in between the two radios without going through the Metro communications system.

An Emergency Response Team (ERT) team was already in place outbound of Farragut North before the derailment investigating cracking concrete which was falling to the roadway. There is no indication yet if this is related to the derailment or not, but it led to a more speedy response by Metro personnel to the derailed train in the tunnel.

The ERT team experienced the same radio issues that the train operator and MTPD did, and at one point they had to walk 300 feet from the train in order to receive radio reception to contact the ROCC.

According to train speed data from MetroHero, the incident train appears to have reached a top speed of approximately 39 miles per hour after departing Farragut North. The speed is within the safe limits of what the track can support, and is partially caused by the decline in elevation between the two stations, which would cause trains to pick up speed easier.

We don't yet have all the details about the derailment

We know that the train derailed, but we still don’t know quite why it derailed — that will take time as Metro investigates what happened. Metro says some cracks in a 10-foot section of rail were found in the area, but the root cause of the derailment hasn't been nailed down. Some of the damage track crews found could have happened after or because of the derailment. Metro’s general manager Paul Wiedefeld noted the rail in the area was from 1993 — which is still relatively new — and that an ultrasonic inspection of the track last August revealed no issues.

Metro and external investigators will have several outlets to look into: operator/human error, performance of the train, track condition and inspections, and more.

Regarding track condition, investigators will certainly be looking to see if there were any recent issues in this section of track, any recent trackwork, and any lesser issues which trains were still allowed to run over. The track where this train derailed did not use wood or cement rail ties like the above-ground sections in the system, but things like the fasteners which hold the track in place will still be looked at to check if they were working properly.

Investigators will interview the train operator and look at his performance to see if they may have contributed to the derailment (i.e. if the operator lost situational awareness). The operator initially reported to ROCC that he had no propulsion, not that the train was derailed; knowing when Metro knew what they know now is useful to understand the exact timeline of events.

This derailment is only the first for a 7000-series, the newest generation of railcars, on the mainline tracks of the Metrorail system. Another eight-car 7000-series train derailed in the Shady Grove Yard on January 2. That incident, while separate, could very well be added to this investigation to see if there are any commonalities with the 7000-series cars that could lead to a derailment.

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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.