Metro train escape: Riders were orderly but lacked information, passenger says

Robert Thomson
Columnist July 6, 2012

Friday’s evacuation of a derailed Green Line train was just one of two serious incidents on the Metro line last week. A passenger who was aboard a train stranded in the heat Tuesday evening writes to express concern about that appalling incident and to disagree with a headline that characterized fellow riders’ responses as a “rebellion.”

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

The “rebellion” headline angers me even more than the events as they actually occurred. Since I was on the second-to-last car, I can’t speak to what happened farther up the train, but I can account for the official announcements and what my car opted to do:

The train lost power just outside the College Park station, about 600 yards from the platform. After a few attempts at restarting, the operator went through the train to the other end. She told passengers in our car that she was going to try to start the train at the other end.

That failed. She then walked back through the train and came on the loudspeaker to tell us that another train would come through from Prince George’s Plaza to push us into the station. All of that took [an estimated] 30 minutes. After that, we heard nothing.

For 25 to 30 minutes, we sat there without any information. A woman on my car was on the phone with Metro and was told that the train behind us had also lost power.

We could see the operator walking by the train and fiddling with an electrical box. We also saw a handful of people leave the first car and head to the station, which prompted conversation about whether the train was being evacuated. About five minutes later, the operator got on the loudspeaker to say: “The third rail is down. There is no power going through it. I guess you can all get off now if you like.”

We saw about a dozen more people get off the front car and decided that we were supposed to evacuate for ourselves. I waited about five minutes to see if the operator would come back on with instructions. She didn’t.

On my car, passengers read the printed instructions on how to open the door and filed out one by one. It appeared that the same was happening in the other cars. To get down from the car, we had to jump down about three feet. Some people struggled with this, but others helped them.

After I had walked about two car lengths, a police officer (I’m not sure which jurisdiction, but not Metro Police) ran down the opposite tracks yelling, “Get back on the train. The third rail is live.”

Many people ignored the police officer and just kept going. My own thought was that it was probably more dangerous to climb back up into the train than to walk next to the tracks. So I kept going.

I do believe the third rail was off, because with the exception of that one police officer, none of the other emergency personnel seemed to be too concerned about it. As we reached the platform, they helped people climb up and asked if anyone needed medical attention. No one gave us a lecture about walking down the tracks.

So from my perspective, using the word “rebellion” to describe this incident is a bit ridiculous. Maybe there was more going on in the other cars, and certainly a few people did leave the train before the operator gave her go-ahead. But everyone I saw was quite orderly and pulled together to do what had to be done.

I would think Metro would have a protocol on what to do in these situations and the operator would give explicit instructions on how, when and where to exit the train. If so, the operator is wholly at fault. Had she communicated with us clearly and frequently, none of this would have happened.

My biggest concern from the whole event is that if Metro can’t easily handle a small incident like this one, how will it ever handle a major emergency? I will continue to hope that I never have to find out.

— David Wilmes, Greenbelt

What a mess.

The fact that scores of passengers were wandering along the tracks after a haphazard evacuation from a stranded rail car in that high heat is Metro’s fault, and no one else’s. The agency that has proclaimed safety as its top goal let these people down.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or
e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com.

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