Security camera screenshot of the insulator on fire at Benning Road Metro station from August 4, 2015. Image from Metro.

An insulator caught fire and filled the Benning Road Metro station with heavy, thick smoke in a previously-unreported incident from August 2015. This came nine months prior to the insulator explosion in the Federal Center Southwest station in 2016, and raises new questions about what WMATA knew of the risks from its power system.

Agency documents show the fire started around 11:10 pm the evening of August 4, 2015 inside the Benning Road station on the outbound track towards Largo. Metro CCTV footage shows an intense flame emitting from an insulator under the electrified third rail. It startles a passenger waiting on the platform, who walks up the escalator and appears to leave the station.

As the fire continues unabated, smoke fills the station and obscures the camera view of the platform within a minute after the insulator ignited. Smoke only begins to clear from the camera’s viewpoint after approximately five minutes.

“Station is filled with smoke and has been evacuated at this time,” reads an email obtained from Metro. “Fire and EMS investigation revealed that the 3rd rail on track [1] side going towards [Largo Town Center] is warped.”

On-site inspections by Metro track personnel found that a third rail and the insulator was “severely burnt” and both would require replacement. The fire was hot and long enough that 20 feet of the third rail had been warped by the fire and had to be replaced.

Excerpt from an Incident Report document obtained from Metro. Image by the author.

Train service at the station was suspended, and Metro set up a bus bridge between Stadium Armory and Addison Road while power to the tracks was brought down. Prince George’s County firefighters and Metro Transit Police responded to the station, which remained closed until just before 12:30 am.

Metro track crews received emergency track rights to fix the third rail before the next morning’s service, when the station opened as usual. According to Metro records, they reported the tracks were ready for service just 14 minutes before the system’s 5 am opening.

GGWash obtained documents detailing the event from Metro through a Public Access to Records and Privacy Policies (PARP) request originally submitted in February 2017, all of which can be found at the end of this post.

Metro withheld the agency’s draft report about the event and denied a PARP appeal to obtain the document, citing PARP Exemption 6.1.5, “deliberative-process privilege.” The agency says the incident is included in a late 2016 traction power report from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), even though it is never specifically mentioned within.

Security camera screenshot showing thick smoke filling the Benning Road station. Image from video from Metro. Image by the author.

In an emailed statement, Metro spokesperson Sherri Ly was unable to offer any details about the incident: “The people involved in the handling of this are no longer with Metro (GM, DGMO Rail, Chief Safety Officer, Deputy Chief Safety Officer, TRST Superintendent, to name a few). Consequently, we are unable to provide additional detail, beyond the records you have already received and reviewed, regarding something that occurred more than 3 years ago."

One in a string of many electrical incidents

Metro’s electrical system was in such bad shape that an FTA report from late December 2016 required the agency to fulfill 47 different actions in order to improve safety and limit smoke and fire incidents. The report states that Metro “has experienced a sharp increase in the number of [traction power electrification] system-related failures and incidents.” There had been 70 since the FTA took over oversight of Metrorail safety in October 2015 to when the report was published.

The insulator fire at Benning Road occurred before the FTA oversight takeover, and was thus not included in this list. It is unknown if Metro reported the fire to either the FTA once they took over, or to the Tri-State Oversight Committee, the existing Metrorail oversight body.

The incident similarly occurred three months before the current Metro General Manager, Paul Wiedefeld, was hired into the agency.

US Department of Transportation secretary Anthony Foxx reportedly came close to shutting down the Metrorail system after the later insulator explosion at Federal Center Southwest, according to a report at the time from WAMU. The agency even drafted a plan for how to deal with a shutdown. Track inspectors and emergency officials were denied access to the tracks to look at what happened for hours after the explosion, and the station was only shut down for repairs once Wiedefeld saw video of the event.

This explosion occurred during the day and received more attention, especially because the incident was captured on video and given to NBC Washington. WMATA also tweeted publicly when the station was ordered to remain closed and provided an image of a pallet of fiberglass insulators being delivered to the station to replace the older porcelain ones.

Less than two months after the May insulator explosion at Federal Center SW, Metro published a press release noting that all porcelain insulators had been removed from all underground stations. The insulators “have been replaced with safer, more heat-resistant fiberglass insulators,” according to the release. Wiedefeld reportedly “accelerated” the insulator replacement due to the Federal Center SW incident. However, at least one older porcelain insulator remained at the Federal Triangle station until March 2017.

Metro has been taking on fire and smoke issues for awhile

Wiedefeld previously closed the entire Metrorail system on March 15, 2016 after a cable fire outside McPherson Square, which bore striking similarity to the cable fire attributed in a fatality during the L’Enfant Plaza incident earlier the prior year. Incomplete sealant and cracks on third rail cables were susceptible to allowing debris and water in, which can set off major smoke-producing fires.

Metro’s public quarterly performance reports do not include smoke or fire incident data for Fiscal Year 2016 (July 2015-June 2016), but during the last month available prior to the blackout, May 2015, Metro reported 19 fires and 16 smoke events (35 total). The average that fiscal year, FY 2015, was just under 12 incidents per month, and the year before averaged just under nine events per month.

WMATA fire data as of March 2018 through Fiscal Year 2018 Quarter 3. Image from WMATA. Image used with permission.

As Metro implemented new tunnel cleaning and power rehab programs in 2016, the average number of incidents remained steady at eight per month between July 2016 and June 2017. It has since decreased to an average of seven smoke/fire incidents per month in the last nine months.

Speed restrictions imposed due to the FTA’s requirement to decrease hazardous events was only recently lifted on June 1. Trains had been limited first to 45, and then 35 miles per hour from Rosslyn to Benning Road and Minnesota Avenue, and also from Medical Center to Union Station to “reduce the risk of smoke and fire events.” The agency attributes some of the improvements leading up to this to its new preventative maintenance program, which includes power cable meggering to find potential issues before they become emergencies.

The most recent arcing insulator to cause single-tracking was on August 13, when a train operator reported seeing sparks in between Dupont Circle and Woodley Park. Trains were required to single-track while a WMATA Emergency Response Team removed the degraded insulator.

See all documents obtained through PARP from Metro:

Rail Transit OPS members Roger Bowles and James Pizzurro contributed to this report. Metro Reasons is a regular breaking news, investigative reporting, and analysis column by Stephen Repetski about everything Metro. Please send tips to Metro Reasons.

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.