The real issues in transportation safety have a way of getting lost in political rhetoric and attempts for headlines. That is what happened when Deputy D.C. Fire Chief T. R. Coleman said that the Metro subway has "an alarming potential for disaster" because of the combustible, toxic materials in Metro's cars.
But other issues, equally serious, are important to the safety of Metro riders, and they disappeared in the TV lights at the National Transportation Safety Board hearing. They involve fire departments as much as Metro and they involve difficult questions that concern money, training and fear.
The subway cars themselves share a problem with automobiles and airplanes: their interiors contain plastics and fabrics that, under extreme heat, will burn or emit fumes and smoke. Metro's planners decided early that the risk of that type of interior was preferable to the uncomfortable alternative, metal seats and less attractive walls and floors.
The seat cushions -- the most likely contributor to an in-car fire -- will not go off like a rocket at the touch of a careless match and in many cases will self-extinguish. They meet the voluntary guidelines for flammability set by the federal Urban Mass Transportation Administration.
For this, we can thank the metropolitan area fire chiefs who, in 1975, pushed Metro to test, then change, the materials used in its seat cushions to ones that would be less flammable. The D.C. Fire Department was active in those discussions. Now that department has new leadership. But given the history, it would be understatement to say Metro was surprised to hear the attack on its car interiors.
That brings us back to money, training and fear.
Let's take money first. There has been a long-running hassle between the fire departments and Metro about who will pay for a radio system in the tunnels that will permit fire departments to communicate independent of Metro's radio network. The taxpayers are going to pay the bill, and they don't care whether it comes from their tax money for the Metro operating subsidy or their tax money for the fire department. But the fire department budget office cares, and the Metro board budget committee cares, and the result is, four years after Metro opened for business, the fire emergency radio network is not what it should be.
Take training. Metro and local fire departments held practice drills in the tunnels and in the stations on all new sections of the subway before they opened. But there have been no drills on sections since they have opened, and not all tunnels look alike.
There have been no practice fire drills in the most vulnerable point in the system, the long run under the Potomac River between Rosslyn and Foggy Bottom, since service started there in July 1977. There was one real fire at the bottom of that tunnel and, although it was small, fire department and Metro response was characterized more by confusion than precision despite Metro's impressive manual of emergency procedures.
Safety specialists know that the best kind of training is the training that host accurately simulates real conditions. The airlines call it hands-on training, and they make their pilots go through simulated emergencies time and time again until their reactions are automatic. Who would pay for a recurrent training program at the transit system -- Metro or the fire departments? The budget officers argued and found the classic answer: Metro applied for and received a federal grant to develop a training program that will feature slides and graphs, not real drills in real tunnels.
Metro and local fire departments have never tried to evacuate a fully loaded eight-car train stuck in a tunnel in a simulated emergency. There have been two rush-hour train evacuations, but both were for operational problems, not for emergencies. Both times it took more than an hour to move everybody from one train to a so-called "rescue train," Metro's preferred procedure. Obviously if there were a serious fire, one hour would be too long.
Then there is fear. The subway was sold as safe. In fact, it is safe by any statistical measure one wishes to employ. It is safer than driving; it is safer than flying. But what, one wonders, would happen in a real emergency?
The doors at the ends of the train (the doors through which Metro proposes to evacuate us) are locked; the side doors can be opened only by somebody who knows how. There are no emergency evacuation instructions anywhere in the cars, and the people who have found the emergency call-in boxes in the ends of the cars are eligible for Serendipity's first prize.
Anyone-who has been stuck on an inoperative Metro train knows that public address explanations as to what is happening will be rare and uninformed. What if there are flames? Will people locked in a crowded car wait patiently for a PA announcement?
It is this combination of factors that creates the "potential for disaster." Good evacuation plans and training, good public information programs and regular drills by the fire departments and Metro can substantially reduce that potential.
The big-city rail transit systems have been fighting the threat of federal safety regulations for years, and are fighting them hard now. The best way to preclude all those federal forms and questions, some of which will undoubtedly reflect extraordinary federal ignorance, will be to spend a little local money and time on real training programs.