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Metro: Miscommunication complicated Green Line chaos last month

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Metro officials, revealing new details about last month’s botched Green Line evacuation, said Thursday that miscommunication between a transit police sergeant and the transit agency’s command center complicated efforts to assist about 2,000 passengers who were stranded on two trains in Southeast Washington.

About 200 passengers exited the train and walked the tracks to an emergency exit in Anacostia. It was the second time in less than a year that frightened, frustrated passengers aboard a stranded Metro train took matters into their own hands.

At a meeting Thursday of the Metro board’s safety and security committee, officials laid out details of their inquiry into the Jan. 30 incident and provided a three-page report to committee members.

Metro General Manager Richard Sarles, who publicly apologized after the Jan. 30 evacuation, told the committee that the agency had mishandled the incident.

“We faced up to the issues, and it was a terrible situation,” Sarles said. “Protocols were not followed. We would not have been there had protocols been followed.”

Sarles said he understood that Metro employees were working under pressure but he said that “we need to improve on the situation.”

The Washington Post has asked for Metro records related to the evacuation incident, but the agency can take as long as 20 days to respond and has yet to provide any of the requested documents.

Leading up to the Jan. 30 incident, crews were working to repair an electrical insulator that had started to smoke, and trains had started to single-track — or use the same track in both directions — through the area.

A Metro Transit Police sergeant on the scene saw train lights coming and did not know the train was going to divert to the other track. Thinking that workers on the track were in danger, the sergeant hit an emergency cutoff switch, according to officials. Two trains — 507 and 512 — were waiting their turns to go through and were stranded when that stretch of track lost power.

After cutting off power, the sergeant failed to follow protocol, which required him to pick up a nearby phone that provides a direct line to the agency’s command center, according to the account provided at the meeting. That left the operations command center in the dark about why power had been shut off on that section of track, Metro officials said.

The sergeant radioed a transit police liaison in the command center, but the liaison failed to communicate to other authorities that the power had been cut by the sergeant on the scene.

Just as the command center was about to restore power, it received reports that passengers had exited trains and were walking on the tracks. About 200 passengers came up a vent shaft and surfaced in Anacostia Park.

Compounding the crisis were concerns about a powerful thunderstorm that was about to hit the area. “Customers were alarmed,” said Lynn Bowersox, assistant general manager for customer service, communications and marketing. “That sense of alarm led them to self-evacuate.”

Sarles told the safety committee that having passengers on the tracks is “one of the worst situations we face” and that, in this instance, the self-evacuation prolonged the service disruption because power could not be restored until everyone was out of the tunnel.

Sarles said he wasn’t sure that announcements asking people to remain on the trains would have helped, given that some passengers waited only 15 minutes before leaving. The operator of Train 507 had a confrontation with a man who was followed off the train by other passengers because they thought they were being led by a Metro employee, Bowersox said.

Officials said the operator then directed an off-duty Red Line operator who happened to be on 507 to accompany the passengers through the tunnel.

Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn said the situation was further complicated because the stuck trains couldn’t communicate with the command center without being interrupted by other trains on the radio system. He said Metro is trying to “explore enhanced radio communication” channels to use in emergencies.

The report said the operator of Train 512, which was closest to the Anacostia station, had been on the job for only seven months. That operator and other Metro officials on the scene “failed to make their presence known to customers” and made “inadequate announcements” to riders about the situation, the report said.

Sarles said Metro did not intend to discipline any of the employees involved but would retrain them.

Riders reported confusion and chaos once they reached the Anacostia and Navy Yard stations. They said there was no information about shuttle buses that were provided to take them to other locations.

Some riders were driven home by transit police officers, and U.S. Park Police had a helicopter fly over Anacostia Park to make sure no passengers were left behind, Metro officials said.

Metro promised to review how the operations control center and transit police communicate in emergencies and to run training drills bringing together Metro departments.

The Tri-State Oversight Committee, which monitors Metro safety, is looking at the transit agency’s handling of the situation. Sarles said the Federal Transit Administration might also look into the incident.

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