Safety officials from three major subway systems yesterday told a Metro board panel that riders should know how to open car doors so they could save themselves from the fire and smoke of a severe accident.
Metrorail cars currently contain no such instructions, on the grounds that the knowledge, if misused by pranksters or panicky riders, might be a safety hazard in itself. Metro is reevaluating that approach in the wake of the Jan. 13 derailment that killed three people.
The National Transportation Safety Board and D.C. Fire Department officials have called on Metro to include escape instructions in its cars.
Officials from San Francisco, Montreal and Toronto, invited to Washington to give their views to the Metro board panel studying safety in the Washington system, said cars in their cities contain escape instructions and that abuse has not been a significant problem.
"On the contrary," said George Donato, engineering director of the Montreal rail system, "we feel it has increased safety in the subways."
The officials agreed that "controlled evacuation" of a disabled train under the direction of firefighters or rail officials in an emergency is best. However, heavy fire and smoke in a severe accident might cause casualties before rescuers arrive and the argument is that passengers need the means to get out alone.
Metro's concern has been that passengers might panic and leave a car in a noncritical situation, risking electrocution on the 750-volt third rail. Or people might open car doors as a prank. In the great majority of cases, they say, it is safer to remain inside a car than get out.
In their statements yesterday, officials from all three systems described processes similar to what is happening at Metro: Initial belief that safety precautions are infallible, then a major accident, followed by a years-long reevaluation and fundamental changes in safety preparations.
At San Francisco's BART, the accident was a train fire in the tunnel under the San Francisco Bay in 1979 that killed one firefighter. BART safety director Ralph Weule told the committee that the system subsequently launched a major media campaign to educate the riding public on what to do in an emergency. It pursued a $38 million program to improve equipment and replace car seats and interiors with less flammable materials.
Weule said BART often conducts "no-notice" safety drills, in which a train with passengers is delayed by up to 15 minutes while control room personnel and firefighters respond without warning as if it had crashed. Metro now notifies rescue units well in advance of drills but may begin conducting them without warning.
Carlton Sickles, head of the special Metro Board committee set up to study safety issues raised by the accident, said he hopes the full Metro Board will finish its deliberations on evacuation and other key questions by the end of January.
The committee is also considering installing levers or buttons in Metro's cars to let passengers stop a train if they spot trouble. Montreal cars have a handle that stops the train if pulled while the train is in a station. The train stops at the next station if the handle is pulled while the train is in a tunnel.
Another step the committee is considering is to assign a Metro police officer or second operator to all rush-hour trains or to trains that pass under the Potomac River. Other transit systems have found that having two trained people aboard can be crucial to containing fires and evacuating passengers safely.
BART's experience is of special interest to Metro because its trains and signal equipment are similar to Metro's. The Toronto and Montreal subways, meanwhile, are widely praised by U.S. transit officials as the best-run systems in North America.