Metro scrutinized over policies for handling emergencies and getting riders on their way

Metro’s handling of emergencies — from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to 2010’s Snowmageddon, the August earthquake and most recently a person struck by a train — has managers, watchdogs and board members questioning the transit authority’s policies for dealing with crises in the system.

Richard Sarles, Metro’s general manager, ordered a review of the handling of a Oct. 11 incident at the Clarendon station, where a 39-year-old McLean man intentionally placed himself in front of an oncoming train, Metro has said. Passengers were stuck on that train for more than an hour, and other Orange Line commuters faced major delays, crowded stations and escalators that became inoperable because of the number of riders.The man died a week later.

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Sarles’s request for a report is “standard in the wake of any incident to see if there are lessons learned,” said Dan Stessel, Metro’s chief spokesman. Metro staff employees are expected to brief the Metro board at Thursday’s meeting of the safety and security committee.

Metro board member Mary Hynes, who is also vice chairwoman of the Arlington County Board, said last week that Metro needs a “better plan” for getting people out of crowded stations when there is a crisis.

Stessel said the transit authority has protocols in place. In situations such as the one at Clarendon, the “focus is on saving the life of one man,” he said.

“That effort requires suspension of service [and] diversion of trains and led to extreme inconvenience for many customers,” Stessel said.

But passengers say they also need better information, a complaint that arose immediately after the Aug. 23 earthquake and again this month. One common frustration among riders after the Orange Line incident was not knowing how bad the delays were and how long they were expected to last.

Stessel said Metro sent out more than 40 tweets during the Clarendon incident, but that alone is not an effective way to reach masses of people, according to transportation experts. Mobile devices may not work underground, not all riders carry them and communication systems can become overloaded. Placing signs and more personnel in stations reaches a greater number of people, experts say.

“It is not just that you have to have a perfect plan,” said Joshua Schank, an urban planner and transportation expert. “You need a clear, effective plan to communicate with customers. People want to know the truth, and they want to keep getting updates.”

Ron Kirby, the transportation planning director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, said one of the problems agencies face in emergencies is that officials are so busy dealing with the incident at hand that they “don’t have time to deal with or think about the ripple effects of the incident” on commutes.

Metro is exploring how to improve its communication and alert system so riders can “make their own choices of whether or not to seek alternate transportation, delay their travel or go to happy hour,” Stessel said.

At Clarendon, power to both tracks had to be shut down while emergency crews removed the man. Because the train was not in the station, it was deemed unsafe to allow its passengers to get off, Stessel said. Metro Transit Police boarded the train, walked through every car and checked on passengers, he said.

Once the man was rescued and power restored to the tracks, the train was brought into the station and passengers were allowed to disembark.

But they found chaos and crowded stations on the Orange Line. At Rosslyn, the crush was made worse by escalators that shut down after they became overloaded with people. Metro said it opened the fare gates to help improve the flow. However, the station was packed.

Arlington emergency officials transported four people from the Clarendon and Rosslyn stations that evening, according to Arlington Fire Lt. Gregg Karl. He declined to state their conditions.

When Metro officials realized the extent of the Rosslyn crowding, they diverted 17 Orange Line trains to the Blue Line, Stessel said. It also dispatched more than 40 buses to shuttle passengers, he added.

About a week later, Metro e-mailed randomly selected registered SmarTrip users who take the Orange Line and distributed cards to riders at many stations west of Rosslyn, asking them to take an online survey about their experience that day.

Of the 2,625 people who responded, 39 percent said it took them one to two hours longer than normal to get home. Another 39 percent said their commutes took more than two hours.

Riders also were asked how they finally got home: 36 percent waited for rail service to resume; 24 percent walked; 21 percent called for a ride; 14 percent took Metrobus; 12 percent took shuttle buses; and 11 percent took cabs.

 
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