Metro Operators' Door Errors Linked to Longer Trains

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 2, 2008

Some Metro operators are opening the doors of eight-car trains before all the cars reach station platforms, a safety violation that endangers riders, who could fall onto the tracks, officials said yesterday.

The agency typically runs a mix of six-car and eight-car trains during peak periods. Because eight-car trains are 600 feet long, the same length as the platforms, there is no room for error.

Since January, there have been at least 13 incidents in which eight-car trains have not been berthed properly, Metrorail chief Dave Kubicek said, leaving some end cars full of surprised riders when doors opened in tunnels. The most recent incident took place during the morning rush Wednesday at Rosslyn on the Orange Line, officials said.

Kubicek said he was not aware of any passenger injuries resulting from the errors.

Metro has fired one operator, suspended eight and put two on administrative leave, according to statistics Kubicek provided. The affected employees included veteran operators and some with less than two years' experience. No action was taken in two cases because the error was caused by equipment malfunction.

As ridership grows, Metro's main way to ease crowding is to run more eight-car trains, which make up about 18 percent of all rush-hour trains. Virtually all the premature openings are occurring because operators are forgetting that they are running eight-car, not six-car, trains. As a result, operators are not pulling the longer trains all the way to the front of the platform, according to operators and Metro officials.

Metro and union officials said the incidents are rare; there are 220,000 scheduled door openings daily. "Ninety-nine point nine percent of the operators are operating the trains safely and stopping where they're supposed to," said Jackie Jeter, president of Amalgamated Transit Workers Union Local 689, which represents 7,000 Metro employees, including train operators.

But officials are concerned.

"It's a very, very important issue for us, the severity of this," Kubicek said. "There seems to have been a rash recently."

Unlike shorter trains, whose movements are controlled by computer, eight-car trains are operated manually. Operators say the six-car routine sometimes causes them to stop longer trains where the shorter trains would stop automatically. Metro cannot run eight-car trains on automatic until its precision-stopping system is upgraded, which is expected to take until the end of the year.

The agency is taking several steps to remind operators, including putting placards in cab consoles and having supervisors tell operators throughout their shifts that they have longer trains, he said.

One operator, who did not want to be identified for fear of retaliation, said that incidents are happening more often than officials acknowledge and that some operators might be afraid to report them because of harsh penalties. Operators receive a 20-day suspension for failing to report a first offense and an additional 12 days for opening the doors improperly. Failing to report a second offense can lead to firing.

There were five incidents in April, four within 10 days, according to Metro statistics. All but one of the incidents occurred on the Red, Orange and Green lines, which have the most ridership and where most of the longer trains are deployed. Nearly all took place during peak periods. The door errors were first reported in the Examiner.

Some riders say the incidents give new meaning to the agency slogan "Metro Opens Doors."

Blair Petrillo, 34, a lawyer who commutes between the Court House Station on the Orange Line and Union Station on the Red Line, was on the eight-car train that stopped short at Rosslyn on Wednesday. She was in the last car and when the doors opened, "I was staring at the tunnel wall," she said. Some riders wanted to get off the train but were unable to do so. The operator made no announcement, she said. The doors closed, and the train went on to the next station, Foggy Bottom.

Petrillo said the same thing happened at the same station a week earlier. In a car full of people "with their backs pressed up against the doors, the first thing that happens when the doors open is you step backward to let people off," she said. "You can see where that could be a problem."

Metro officials said human error is not linked to the agency's April 14 decision to require all train operators to open doors manually instead of relying on the automatic door system. That change was made because the automatic system was malfunctioning, causing doors to open on the wrong side of trains.

But operators say the new requirement eliminates a safety procedure. Before April 14, when an eight-car train pulled into a station, the automatic system would open the doors as long as the train was aligned properly. If the doors did not open, the operator was required to call the control center to get permission to open them manually. The operator was then told if the train had stopped short and corrective action was needed, they said.

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