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During Storms, a Metro Train Was Left in Limbo

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 30, 2004; Page B03

The heavy rains stranded a Red Line train late Tuesday night and knocked out communications and electronics so that controllers didn't realize the train was marooned, a Metro official said yesterday.

The train's operator and two passengers sat inside the four-car train in a tunnel just outside the Forest Glen Station for at least a half-hour until help arrived. If the operator had carried a cell phone, he would have been able to call for help, and the stranding would not have turned into an ordeal that lasted more than an hour.

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The incident raises questions about how well the subway system can handle communications blackouts.

"We need a complete review about this situation, about what it tells us about preparedness issues," said D.C. Council member Jim Graham, who represents the District on the Metro board. "What is the wisdom we can gather from this about whether we're ready? Something tells me we have a way to go."

The trouble started about 9:45 p.m., when flooding severed all communication between train operators and Metro's downtown operations control center. Radio communication was restored to most of the system, except for the section of the Red Line between Glenmont and Silver Spring, said Steven Feil, Metro's chief operating officer for rail.

Train No. 104, the last Red Line train of the night, left the Glenmont yard at 11:56 p.m. and headed toward Shady Grove.

The train should have arrived at Silver Spring at 12:04 a.m. But at 12:16 a.m., downtown controllers realized the train had not emerged from the "dark territory" between Glenmont and Silver Spring, the stretch that had lost automatic train control because of flooding, Feil said.

The operator of the train stopped just south of Forest Glen because he saw a red signal along the railroad, Feil said. Operators are required to stop at red signals and can proceed only with permission from Metro's central controllers. The operator tried to call central control on his train radio, but the communications were dead, Feil said. He did not have a cell phone, Feil said.

Metro, like other transit systems, forbids train operators to use cell phones, Feil said.

Because the train operator was unable to communicate with Metro headquarters, he was unable to move the train.

At 12:30 a.m., controllers ordered that another train be sent from the Glenmont yard to make sure the track was clear of trains, since from their downtown headquarters, they had no way of knowing whether any trains were on the track.

Twenty minutes later, that train came upon the stopped train.

A supervisor used his cellular phone to call Metro's central control and received permission for Train 104 to move to Silver Spring, where the two passengers got off. They were driven home by Transit Police.

Train 104 was sent back to the Glenmont yard, where it pulled in at 1:10 a.m., Feil said.

"We did everything we could to provide service under the circumstances," Feil said later in a statement. "However, with that said, I'd like to look at some things that we did and perhaps consider doing them differently to improve and possibly do a lessons-learned type of session/exercise."

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