Some Metro Operators Open Doors of 8-Car Trains Before All Cars Reach Platform

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 8, 2009

Despite numerous safety measures put in place a year ago, some Metro train operators are still opening the doors of eight-car trains before all cars reach the station platform, posing a significant hazard of riders falling onto the tracks, according to Metro statistics.

From March to May, there were 17 such door incidents, all but three involving eight-car trains that were not properly berthed. Most took place during the rush period, and the largest number occurred on the Red Line, which is Metro's busiest. Three incidents involved six-car trains: Two berthed short on the platform, and one opened its doors on the wrong side.

Transit officials said there have been no injuries resulting from the errors.

As ridership grows, Metro's main way to ease crowding has been to run more eight-car trains, which make up 25 percent of rush-period trains. During peak periods, the agency operates a combination of six- and eight-car trains. It also uses eight-car trains for special events, including the Cherry Blossom Festival and Nationals baseball games. Eight-car trains are 600 feet long and fill the length of the platform, leaving no room for error. At "crush loads," a car might be crammed with 180 to 200 people.

Virtually all improper door incidents occur because operators forget they are in an eight-car train, officials said, and don't pull the trains all the way to the front of the platform. Instead, they are berthing them as if they were six cars long, with the end cars no longer abutting the platform.

"We wish we had an answer as to why this continues to happen," said Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel. "Safety is first and foremost with the transit agency, and we take this issue very seriously."

The improper door operations are among the most serious of safety violations. Operators are suspended for 12 days without pay for the first offense. A second offense disqualifies them from operating a train for 18 months, and the third offense results in firing. In the 17 incidents, 13 operators were suspended and four were disqualified, returning to positions as bus operators, records show.

Unlike shorter trains, whose movements are more often controlled by computer, eight-car trains are operated manually. Although the incidents are rare -- there are more than 220,000 scheduled door openings daily -- rail officials are concerned because the incidents are continuing at a time when Metro is trying to use more longer trains. On the Green Line, for example, 50 percent of rush service is on eight-car trains.

To address the problem, officials said, Metro has increased operator training, installed more signs on station platforms and inside train consoles, and coined a slogan to remind operators of eight-car trains to berth them at the end platform gate: "Eights to the gate."

Metro had 42 improper door operations involving the longer trains in 2008, the first year the agency operated substantially more eight-car trains. For the first five months of 2009, there were 22 incidents, putting Metro on track to exceed last year's total.

Of the 17 incidents from March through May, 10 were on the Red Line, five on the Green and two on the Orange. (Metro does not run eight-car trains on the Blue and Yellow lines, which have lower ridership.)

During one week last month, there were five incidents, including two May 18: one on the Red Line at Shady Grove in the morning rush and one on the Green Line at Branch Avenue in the afternoon rush. The next day, supervisors began handing out fliers to all train operators, alerting them to "several improper door operations in the past few days."

Two days later, Metro instituted a one-day "refresher program" on proper door operation, Taubenkibel said.

During special events, Metro requires train operators to berth all trains at the ends of platforms. Officials have been reluctant to make that the policy during regular service, lest it inconvenience riders accustomed to boarding at specific spots.

On BART, the San Francisco subway system most similar in design to Metro, there have been very few berthing issues, a spokesman said. When trains have to be operated manually, operators are instructed to berth them at the end of the platform.

The union that represents most Metro employees, including the 451 train operators, has long supported having trains stop at the same place. "If we got in the habit of stopping in one particular place all the time, it would eliminate this kind of thing from happening," said Jackie Jeter, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689.

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