Why a Red Line train with passengers on board headed towards a track fire
Metro officials unknowingly sent a Red Line train with riders on board towards a track fire, according to agency statements and information provided to Greater Greater Washington. At the time a Red Line train was traveling from the Woodley Park to Dupont Circle stations, the Metro Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC) was still attempting to determine the location of a recently-activated fire alarm and they apparently weren’t aware of the emergency.
The track fire during the evening of Saturday, July 30, caused Metro to suspend service on its Red Line between Van Ness and Farragut North until 11 am on August 1, about 38 hours later. The agency implemented a bus bridge for the remainder of service Saturday, all of Sunday, and Monday morning from 5 am until 11 am.
While the Metro and Washington Metrorail Safety Commission (WMSC) investigations into the fire, as well as the agency’s response, are ongoing, a source tells Greater Greater Washington that the source of electrical arcing was one cable of a three-phase 480-volt power distribution line along the inside of the Red Line tunnel between Woodley Park and Dupont Circle. For unknown reasons, the arcing failed to cause a power breaker to trip, which should have disconnected the cable from its power source and would have limited further arcing and smoke.
At 9:07 pm Saturday (July 30) a fire alarm went off at Metro’s Rail Operations Control Center, the nerve center of the rail system. Unfortunately for the staff at the control center, this fire alarm did not include information that would prove useful: the location of the alarm and what the area it was located in was used for. A source tells GGWash that some alarms do include their specific locations, but not all of them.
In order to gather further details about the alarm, the employees at the ROCC’s Rail Operations Information Center (ROIC) desk - the staff tasked with messaging information and delays to riders and coordinating Metro’s station managers - put in a call to the station manager at Dupont Circle at 9:08 pm. In order to figure out where the alarm was coming from, the ROIC staff would have to ask the station manager to check the local fire alarm display at the station kiosk to determine in what room the alarm was. Then, to know what kind of room that was, the station manager and the ROIC staff needed to cross-reference the room number with a map with the room description indication.
Until this information was gathered, the ROCC would not have known specifically where this fire alarm was coming from. While some Metro fire alarms - likely newer models - do include specific station and room information, not all do.
The fire alarm was coming from Room 107 - a Drainage Pumping Station (DPS) - located between Woodley Park and Dupont Circle outside the passenger-accessible area of Dupont Circle. DPS rooms house the equipment that Metro uses to pump water out of the rail system to keep it dry.
At the time the ROIC desk was tracking down the fire alarm, the ROCC OPS1 desk, which is in charge of the Red Line, dispatched a supervisor to Dupont Circle at approximately 9:09 pm. This standard Metro practice allows the supervisor to report on-scene, coordinate with the station manager, and help manage the situation as necessary. Fire alarms can cause escalators or elevators to stop running, for instance, and a supervisor would be used to help re-start the equipment.
While the OPS1 controllers dispatched the supervisor for the fire alarm, a second issue cropped up: the inbound rail line between Woodley Park and Dupont Circle stations had just developed a malfunctioning track circuit. Track circuits and Metro’s Automatic Train Control system are used to keep trains safely spaced far enough apart.
At around 9:10 pm, the OPS1 radio controller called to Glenmont-bound Train 108, at Woodley Park, to hold at the station. Metro spokesperson Ian Jannetta told the Post that the radio controller attempted to hold the train prior to having it continue in order to perform a track inspection from Woodley Park to Dupont Circle to check for a potential cause of the track circuit malfunction.
Due to apparent communications issues, Train 108 did not stop at Woodley Park like the radio controller instructed, an instruction that they attempted to repeat multiple times, according to audio from OpenMHZ. Rather, the train operator continued on and only replied to the ROCC controller after they were on the way to Dupont Circle. After being asked - and successfully hearing the ROCC controller - to perform a track inspection, the operator of Train 108 then reported seeing sparks on the wall of the tunnel.
Train 108 reported the sparks to the ROCC at around 9:13 pm, at which point they were instructed to reverse back to Woodley Park and take the train out of service. The train arrived there at about 9:30 pm.
Metro says there is “no evidence” that Train 108 was instructed to perform a track inspection “in an area where there was a report of smoke or fire.”
The Metro rail supervisor dispatched for the original fire alarm reported to the ROCC at 9:26 pm that there was visible smoke at Dupont Circle, but that it was dissipating. Tunnel fans in the area of the track fire were activated at 9:22 pm, according to a source, speaking to GGWash under condition of anonymity.
Flashes of Metro’s history
Metro has gotten in trouble when responding to track fires in the past. The infamous L’Enfant Plaza incident from 2015, which led to a rider’s death, was caused by a power cable fire that started in the Yellow Line tunnel south of the station. A train that had departed L’Enfant Plaza sat in the tunnel near the fire, unable to reverse, and filled with smoke. Metro protocols didn’t include verification that the environmental systems were turned off in all cars of the train to keep smoke from entering, tunnel ventilation fans weren’t all working, and communications difficulties between Metro, police, and fire hindered the response
Trains with passengers are not supposed to be used for track inspections when the agency suspects there may be smoke or fire. Having done so in the past, the WMSC ordered Metro to come up with Corrective Action Plans (CAP) to ensure the agency followed its own checklists and handled emergencies in a more standard fashion.
Tunnel fire damages multiple cables
The extended duration of the cable fire led to damage to a number of cables along the inside of the tunnel. Photos shared by Metro General Manager Randy Clarke show a dozen burnt cables, with plastic sheeting dripping off several, char, and exposed insulation.
Team is at work addressing cable repairs from last night’s incident. I was personally in the tunnels w/ the crews to review the damage & repair plan. More work to do so we are also developing 🚌 shuttle contingency plans for tomorrow. More status & service updates tonight. 1/2 https://t.co/ZG6A4TLtoV pic.twitter.com/I2xSGDaeBg— Randy Clarke 🚌🚊🚍 (@wmataGM) July 31, 2022
The damaged cables span multiple Metro departments - power, Automatic Train Control, and communications, each of which had to perform their necessary repairs. Metro crews spliced, ran new cable, and verified connectivity, and were able to restore service by 11 am on Monday (August 1) , albeit a few hours after the agency had hoped. Riders had been warned to expect shuttle buses in case the rail line was not ready to re-open for service Monday morning.
The WMSC, the independent oversight safety agency for Metrorail, says their investigation is continuing. A final report will be posted to their website after it has concluded.