Hydraulic fluid to blame for nightmarish Metro commute


Courtesy of Tamarah Curtis

Metro said leaking hydraulic fluid caused a train to become disabled near the Clarendon station in Wednesday evening’s rush hour that became a commuting nightmare for thousands of passengers on the Blue and Orange lines as it took some nearly three hours to get home.

The incident involved fluid leaking from some 1000 series rail cars, which are the oldest cars in Metro’s fleet. The rail cars were involved in the deadly crash in 2009 at Fort Totten and are expected to be replaced with the new 7000 rail car series early next year.

Metro General Manager Richard Sarles apologized to customers for the delays and said he “will be happy when 1000 series cars are gone.”

The additional details on the incident came Thursday at a safety and security committee meeting of its board of directors.

The incident started just after 5:30 p.m,. when there was a report of a train near the Clarendon station that had a brake problem and could not move. In a news release, Metro said technicians “were not able to resolve” the problem and “due to the location of the disabled train, …towing [it] with passengers aboard, was deemed unfeasible by response personnel.”

That left passengers stuck on the train for 90 minutes, until another arrived and they were able to board through the rear doors, Metro officials said. Metro Transit Police boarded the train to check on passengers. No injuries or medical issues were reported, Metro officials said.

With the train’s brakes not working, other trains had to share a track between Foggy Bottom and Clarendon on the Orange Line and between Foggy Bottom and Arlington Cemetery on the Blue Line.

The sharing of tracks lead to major delays, and overcrowded stations and platforms for hundreds of customers.

Tamarah Curtis, 25, said Wednesday night that it took her three hours to get to her house near the West Falls Church Metro stop from Silver Spring because of the problem. Normally, the commute takes 50 minutes.

She said there were no station managers or Metro employees giving out information as she and dozens of other customers waited an hour and a half for a train at Metro Center. Two Orange Line trains stopped during that time, but Curtis could not board because the trains were already full.

“We were expecting a five, 10 or 20 minute wait,” she said. “But the trains were so packed you couldn’t get on.”

“You could hear the moans and groans of people,” she said. “Everyone was saying, ‘This is taking forever.’ People were rolling their eyes. It was just a mess.”

The only bright spot, Curtis said, was that she didn’t have to pay her usual $5.45 one-way rush hour fare when she finally got to West Falls Church stop.

“They had all the gates open,” she said. “They said, ‘Just walk through.’”

“Usually they don’t give refunds so it was nice of them not to charge us,” she said, finally at home and eating leftover pizza. “But it was pretty frustrating standing around waiting forever.”

Patricia Leslie’s one-hour commute from L’Enfant Plaza to Tysons Corner became a three-hour-and-25-minute ordeal Wednesday evening. After a 30-minute wait at Rosslyn, where she couldn’t get on already-crowded trains, she headed for a free shuttle bus that Metro had sent to deal with the situation. She said she had to wait 20 minutes for the bus to arrive at the station. The shuttle took her to Ballston, where she caught a different Metro bus home.

“It was really chaotic,” she said of the situation.

Kevin Barber, who was one of the passengers on the stranded train with the brake problem, wrote in an e-mail that there “wasn’t much communication to the passengers on what was happening and as crew members kept coming to and from trains they looked like they didn’t know what to do next.”

Barber said the “worst part I saw was people yelling at either the conductor or a crew member who was just trying to do his job. It wasn’t his fault and after being cordial he finally said, ‘I’m doing the best I can.’”

“I felt bad for the crew and us,” Barber said. “No one wanted to be down there.”

Metro returned to two-track operations more than two hours after the initial breakdown. Residual delays continued throughout the evening.

In a rare move, Metro issued a public apology Wednesday night to its customers, saying it “regrets the significant delays you experienced during the evening commute.”

“We understand that delays of an hour or more impact you and your families, and we apologize for the inconvenience,” the statement said. It also encouraged customers to call in or submit an online form with feedback.

In Wednesday evening’s meltdown, some riders reported that emergency intercoms on trains didn’t work – a problem that Metro managers said they fixed after a previous incident a few weeks ago on a Red Line train involving a fight.

Metro had later acknowledged that there had been a long-term problem with emergency intercoms in scores of Metro cars that were arranged in certain configurations on a train. The problem leaves riders with no way to reach train operators. But Metro management had said they were rearranging rail cars on trains in a way that would fix the problem.

Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said in an e-mail late Wednesday night that the emergency intercom problem had been fixed before the Blue/Orange line meltdown. He wrote, “passengers won’t hear announcements while the train operator is walking back on the train trying to fix the problem.”

In Wednesday evening’s Blue/Orange line meltdown, some riders said they received little to no information from station managers or train operators about when trains would arrive or how long the delays were expected to last. After communication problems during service delays or breakdowns in 2010, Metro General Manager Richard Sarles said he would give out bullhorns to station managers. But in Wednesday’s incident, few of those were seen by riders.

Earlier Wednesday, Metro had said it would add three new Twitter accounts to give customers more up-to-date information on delays and problems. But many riders said they were confused as to which account to follow and found there were few updates on the new ones.

Metro officials advised riders in an e-mail statement that they should sign up for its Metro alerts to make sure they are getting up-to-date information about delays and other problems.

At one point, the Farragut West station became so overcrowded because of the backups and delays that Metro officials stopped new customers from entering, according to several riders. Some passengers reported fights at the Clarendon Metro as the train problems unfolded, but Metro Transit Police said they had no such reports.

In an e-mail, Stessel said the agency did not know the “root cause” of the train’s brake problem. He noted that “standard troubleshooting methods were not effective” at the time of the incident.

For Metro it is the latest in a string of headaches. In the last week, two Orange Line trains went down the wrong tracks in two separate incidents. There has been a recent uptick in red signal violations of train operators.

Metro has had a history of brake problems with its trains. Last year, parts from brakes fell off trains in two separate incidents. Metro officials had said they inspected their fleet of rail cars and dealt with the issue.

Dana Hedgpeth is the Washington Post’s lead reporter in covering the Metro rail and bus systems in the D.C. region and the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA) that runs them.
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