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Metro train derails

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Robert Thomson
Traffic and Transportation Columnist
Friday, February 12, 2010; 11:45 AM

A six-car Red Line train headed in the direction of Shady Grove Metrorail station Train derails at Farragut North near the Farragut North Metrorail station. There are no reported injuries.

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Dr. Gridlock was online Friday, Feb. 12, at 11:45 a.m. ET to discuss the available details of today's accident.

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Dr. Gridlock: It's still early in our reporting on the derailment, which occurred near the Farragut North station at 10:13. We'll probably learn some new details during our chat.

So far, there are no reports of injuries. But Red Line service is a mess, to say the least. Also, traffic is jammed up around Connecticut and L and K, because of all the emergency vehicles brought in as a precaution.

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Spencerville, Md.: This morning's commute on the Red Line was a nightmare even before the derailment. I get on at Glenmont and it was standing room only by the time we got to Forest Glen, just two stops away. How can Metro run trains every 20 minutes when the federal government is open?

Dr. Gridlock: Yes, the trains were extremely crowded this morning, even with the late start for federal workers. The reports were particularly bad from the Red and Orange lines. Metro says it used just about all of the 506 rail cars it had stored underground during the blizzard.

The condition of the above ground tracks remains a problem. Metro is working on switches and on the third rails above ground. Trains were lowered to a 35 mph speed limit. There were long gaps between train arrivals.

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Formerly from Silver Spring, Md.: Doc, 1st thank you to you & your staff for the blizzard reporting this past week. Great Job!

2nd ... If there were not any injuries like Metro is reporting, then WHY is there so many emergenecy vehicles onscene? Is this another instance of Metro not telling us everything??

Dr. Gridlock: We don't know whether there were any injuries. At this moment, we're hearing that there were no serious injuries. But the passengers have yet to be evaluated by medical personnel.

Report just in says that L Street has been reopened.

I think the deployment of emergency equipment was the right thing to do. No one knew at first report how much medical equipment would be needed to handle a derailment. But it does appear the street-level operations are winding down now.

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Potomac, Md.: What are the odds that there will be Red Line service between Metro Center and Grovesnor for this afternoon's commute?

Dr. Gridlock: That's a question thousands of people are asking, but there's no way to tell at the moment. Current reports are that the first car of the six-car train derailed as the train left Farragut North heading for Dupont Circle.

There will be a free Metro shuttle bus service linking up the open portions of the Red Line. And it's possible that trains will share the other track around the derailment.

If the derailed car can't be put back on the tracks and the tracks restored to service, one option for people who would normally head toward Shady Grove from Metro Center would be to take the train to Silver Spring and board a J Metrobus to Bethesda's Red Line station.

But keep checking our Get There blog for updates this afternoon.

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Bethesda, Md.: From the chronology in the Get There blog, it seems like it took close to an hour or more to shut off power after the derailment. Luckily there were no injuries. Why does it take so long to shut down the third rail? People can die in an hour who could have been saved if treated quickly.

Dr. Gridlock: It does seem like a long time, but any time we have an incident like this, the early reports are very unclear and subject to revision. We're still in that stage.

Reports right now are that there were three minor injuries aboard the train. The passengers in the derailed part of the train, the front part, were moved to the back of the train and evacuated.

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washingtonpost.com: Get There

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Washington, D.C.: Hi,

Is that 10:13 time correct?

I got to FN station at around 10:25 and while there was a train to SG waiting on the platform for about 10 minutes, it did eventually departed, and was followed by another train in that direction at around 10:35-40. My own train to Glenment left (after a delay because of the third rail) at around 10:45.

This isn't consistent with the 10:13 time reported by the Post.

Dr. Gridlock: Thank you for that account. We'll double check that -- along with everything else we think we know.

Here's the very latest statement from Metro:

The Farragut North Metrorail station is currently closed as a result of a six-car Red Line train headed in the direction of Shady Grove Metrorail station, which derailed from a pocket track (side track) near the Farragut North Metrorail station. There are no reported injuries at this time.

Metro officials and local first responders are at the scene to investigate and to safely get customers off of the train and to the station. All customers were moved to the rear four cars of the train. Those four cars then were separated from the front two cars to allow the four car train to move to the platform to unload the passengers.

The preliminary report is that the front wheels of the lead car came off the tracks. The incident took place at 10:13 a.m.

Customers can expect major delays on the Red Line until the situation is resolved. Shuttle buses will help move people between the Dupont and Gallery Place-Chinatown Metrorail stations along the Red Line.

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Washington, D.C.: I was on the train. There were no injuries. Everyone's been offloaded and I presume they'll have service running again soon if it isn't already. We appeared to be in a middle third tunnel because trains heading in both directions passed us on either side while we were stuck, so I'd bet they can have two tracks going again soon.

Dr. Gridlock: Thanks for this report. I know the Farragut North station quite well, but I find the reports quite confusing. Metro's statement, which I posted above, described the derailment as occuring on a pocket track. I don't understand why a train with passengers would have been on a pocket track.

And now our passenger is reporting here that trains passed on either side. I can't visualize that or think of why that would have occurred following a derailment.

I know there's much more to come.

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Rockville, Md.: Why were people on the west side of the Red Line told to go to Glenmont to go into town? Driving to the other end doesn't help the traffic situation. Why did the Red Line, supposedly the one with the most riders, not get its above ground stations open sooner? How did Metro determine which lines to open first?

Why is it taking so long to get the power off? If there had been a fire or a serious injury, could the people have been evacuated quicker?

Dr. Gridlock: I think that the snow and ice conditions were about the same, not matter how heavily used a line is. The western side of the heavily used Orange Line has the same problem as the western side of the Red Line: Some switches are iced over, and the third rail is covered with snow and ice.

No train can operate in those conditions.

About the incident: We're not even completely sure of the time of the incident, let alone how long it took to turn off the third rail power.

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Yellow Line: Have you heard whether other metro lines will be affected by this at all?

Dr. Gridlock: This should not affect service on the other lines.

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Bethesda, Md.: Does anyone know if trains are leaving Dupont Circle in the direction of Shady Grove?

Dr. Gridlock: Metro says yes, trains are traveling between Dupont Circle and Shady Grove. Anybody know different?

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Washington, D.C.: Is this an accident that could have happened at any time? Metro cars frequently get very crowded and there are sometimes warnings that a train could be offloaded. Or is this something that is a result of the system running too few cars?

Dr. Gridlock: We don't know. I'll offer a guess based on some history: Certain types of Metrorail cars have had difficulty with their wheels on pocket tracks. There was an incident at Mount Vernon Square a couple of years ago.

What I don't understand at this point is why this train would have been moving onto a pocket track, if that's actually what happened.

[K Street eastbound has reopened.]

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Dr. Gridlock...really, was this worth it to fit in a final few hours on Friday? Who is at fault, OPM or WMATA or both?

Dr. Gridlock: Many people -- drivers as well as transit users -- are angry with OPM's decision to bring in federal workers today, before either the roads or rails had recovered.

So far, I don't have any information that would link the crowding on the trains to this derailment.

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Silver Spring, Md.: This just appeared from WMATA on Twitter:

@DCMetroRed Disruption at Farragut North was cleared. Thank you for riding Metro. WMATA

Is it appropriate to assume that is completely incorrect?

Dr. Gridlock: I guess it depends on your definition of "cleared." A Metro transit police spokesman is saying that the train now is on the pocket track, north of the Farragut North station.

The station is now open for normal service, the spokesman says. Both tracks are open.

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Alexandria, Va.: Is it still safe to ride the lead cars with the accident in June, the fire last week, and this derailment all happening to the lead car?

I regularly ride the lead car when I go home so that it is closer to the escalator and there are less people, but now I'm not sure if I should do that anymore.

Dr. Gridlock: I always ride in the lead car, if I can. It tends to be less crowded, because not everyone has adjusted to the trains pulling to the front of the platform.

These incidents shouldn't happen. This needs to stop. But I still consider a Metro ride as my safest way to get around.

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Captiol Hill: Hey, Doc! What are my chances of getting from Cap. Hill to Friendship this evening (sometime after 4 p.m.) on Metro?

Dr. Gridlock: Here's Metro's latest statement:

The Farragut North Metrorail station reopened at 12:11 p.m. today (Feb. 12) after a six-car Red Line train headed in the direction of Shady Grove Metrorail station, which derailed from a pocket track (side track) just after it serviced the Farragut North Metrorail station.

Trains will be restricted to a speed of 25 mph between Dupont Circle and Farragut North Metrorail stations while Metro officials investigate the incident.

The first two cars of the train remain in the pocket track. They are expected to be removed after the rail system closes tonight at midnight.

[I still don't understand about the train moving onto the pocket track.]

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Bethesda, Md.: Why would the train be on a pocket track if it was just going through the station in normal service?

Dr. Gridlock: Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein, being interviewed on Channel 5, is maintaining that the train that derailed was moving onto the pocket track north of Farragut North. She says that is not an unusual procedure if a train is maneuvering around other trains or track work. But we were not aware of any stopped trains or track work going on on the Red Line at that time.

Maneuvering onto a pocket track has the potential to derail a Metro train. That's certainly happened before. Farbstein is not saying why this particular train was moving onto the pocket track. She says that's part of the investigation.

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D.C.: To the person who asked about the time of the incident, I was in the first car of the derailed train, and I saw several trains go by us in both directions as we were waiting, so that timeline does make sense.

Dr. Gridlock: Thanks very much for that. The scenario Metro is describing makes sense if the entire six-car train had moved onto the pocket track between Farragut North and Dupont Circle at the time it derailed. Metro is sticking with the 10:13 a.m. time for the derailment.

This scenario also makes sense in light of the quick reopening of the service on both tracks,which Metro just announced.

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Alexandria, Va.: How does this accident, the fire, snow removal and lack of riders for the past week factor into the Metro operating budget or is it factored into another budget?

Dr. Gridlock: Metro has lost a lot of passenger revenue during the past week. Wednesday set a record for low ridership. Declining revenue is the key factor in Metro's budget problems during the current year.

This incident certainly will add to Metro's expenses, and probably involves both operating and capital budget costs.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Metro has become so unreliable and unsafe. It is time for the federal government to step in on an emergency basis to take over Metro?

Dr. Gridlock: I just don't see how a federal takeover would help us -- even if it were constitutional. Metro has 10,000 employees and a budget that's inadequate to maintain the system, let alone improve it. I don't see federal intervention affecting these things.

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Vienna, Va.: This is clearly on OPM's head. Metro is stressed to the max, a number of above ground stations are still closed and OPM decided to open the federal offices today, just to show "how tough" the federal government is. While there is no direct correlation between OPM's decision and the derailment, this would be much less tramatic if there had still been light ridership on the rails.

Dr. Gridlock: It's very difficult at the moment to make any direct connection between OPM's decision and the derailment. Certainly, OPM's decision to open federal offices did lead directly to a very bad rush hour, because the road and transit network had not recovered from the two storms.

About the derailment, this is what I'd focus on: Why was the train moving onto the pocket track at that time? What was it trying to get around? Did this have anything to do with the state of the transit equipment following the two storms? Did it have anything to do with the crowding on the Red Line? Was the weight of the rail car a factor in the derailment? Was maintenance of the rail cars or of the rail switch or the tracks a factor in the derailment?

This could go any number of ways. For example, that's the oldest section of the Red Line. It's scheduled for a major maintenance project starting this year. Was the age of the track equipment a factor?

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Dr. Gridlock: Travelers, I need to wrap up now and get back to work on my Sunday column. Please continue checking our Get There blog for the lastest on the derailment and the overall state of the transportation network on this difficult day.

Write to me any time at drgridlock@washpost.com. Stay safe.

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