WASHINGTON – Federal investigators blasted the Washington subway system Tuesday as "reprehensible" and "a comedy of errors" for failing to fix safety problems known for years before heavy smoke in a tunnel killed one passenger and injured 90 people in January 2015.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority failed to identify water leaks in tunnels and prioritize repairs that would have prevented the corrosion of electrical lines, which sparked the fatal incident, the National Transportation Safety Board said. Power lines are often improperly assembled without insulation sleeves, which allows prolonged short-circuits such as the one in January, the board found.
Metro averaged two incidents per week of fire or smoke in the tunnels in the year before the fatal incident, investigators said. Metro routinely used to send trains with passengers into tunnels to determine whether there was actually smoke or fire inside, they said.
"This just seems reprehensible," said Bella Dinh-Zarr, the board's vice chairwoman, who regularly rides the Metro. "The use of inadequately trained WMATA employees and passengers as essentially canaries in the tunnel — I mean, that sounds like a dangerous and risky practice."
After a train was enveloped in smoke on Jan. 12, 2015, a few hundred feet outside the L'Enfant Plaza station, the Metro train operator turned off ventilation to only the first of six cars, investigators said. Other cars filled with smoke, which also clouded the station. The smoke detector closest to the smoking power lines wasn't working.
Dozens of trains continued using other tracks in the station — despite one being stranded and engulfed in smoke, investigators said. But if all trains had halted at the first report of smoke, as is Metro's policy, the train that filled with smoke wouldn't have been stranded in a tunnel as the power lines short-circuited and lost power, the board ruled unanimously.
Passengers panicked and two people evacuated the train on their own before emergency responders arrived, investigators said. about 380 passengers ultimately evacuated. Damage was estimated at $120,000.
The L'Enfant station, which is located in an area packed with federal buildings, is a transfer point for passengers crossing between Virginia and central Washington and is one of the subway system's busiest.
Metro's last emergency evacuation drill was in March 2010, nearly five years before the incident. Responders also had trouble talking to each other by radio in the tunnels, investigators said.
"There was a litany of errors and failures," said board member Robert Sumwalt, who called the situation a comedy of errors – without the laughs.
The board also found that the three governments managing the system – the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia – failed to provide effective oversight.
"It is time to embrace systemic changes to establish safety as a core value at WMATA, system-wide, on an ongoing basis," said Christopher Hart, the safety board's chairman. "The traveling public deserves no less."
The board recommended in September that the Federal Railroad Administration provide more vigorous oversight of Metro, rather than the current regulator, the Federal Transit Administration. The board found that FTA lacks expertise and resources to regulate Metro effectively.
But Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx rejected the proposal to ask Congress for the change. Instead, Foxx appointed three new members to the eight-member Metro board last week.
In a three-page letter to the board Tuesday, Foxx said FTA is improving Metro safety faster through a “safety blitz” than waiting for a new law from Congress. Since November, FTA conducted 143 inspections and is working to verify whether Metro has fixed dozens of long-outstanding remedies from a fatal crash in 2009, Foxx said.
“In summary, FTA already has the authority to provide immediate safety oversight of WMATA, and it has exercised that authority,” Foxx wrote. “In a short time, FTA has provided more thorough safety oversight over WMATA than it has ever received before.”
But Hart said the safety blitz and other recent actions weren’t enough to improve safety long term.
Metro provides crucial transportation with 700,000 trips each weekday, from janitors to senators, Hart said. The accident happened steps away from the National Transportation Safety Board's offices, he noted.
"The safety of Metrorail is critical both to the daily life of Washington, D.C., and to the effective operation of all branches of the federal and local governments," Hart said. "only robust, permanent safety oversight can assure that positive safety improvements will become the norm, and continue to be the norm, throughout WMATA’s rail operations."
Metro was flagged with more than 100 safety recommendations after nine investigations since 2004, but Dinh-Zarr said Metro routinely backslides after fixing problems.
"Sometimes the problem returns and they revert to previous conditions," she said.
The board made another 24 recommendations to Metro on Tuesday, including:
• Revise tunnel inspections and repairs to minimize water intrusions.
• Improve the capacity of tunnel ventilation fans.
• Install a system to detect and report smoke and fire in tunnels and stations.
• Stop using occupied trains to identify smoke or fire in tunnels and have qualified staffers investigate.
Sumwalt expressed confidence that Metro’s new general manager and CEO, Paul Wiedefeld, who was appointed in November, would improve the system.
“There’s a new sheriff in town,” Sumwalt said. “It’s going to take an effort by a lot of people.”
Metro officials shut the system for a day for emergency inspections after a March fire at the McPherson Square station, which resembled the fatal fire in January 2015.
Metro officials are studying whether to close the entire subway or specific lines for months to make repairs. A decision is expected within weeks.