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Agency probes Metro over handling of weekend track-fire incident

Metro denied that a train operator had been instructed to do a track inspection for the fire

A Red Line train comes into the Van Ness-UDC station in 2018. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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Metrorail’s regulatory agency is investigating whether a rail traffic controller told the operator of a train carrying passengers to check on a reported track fire. The fire shut down a section of the Red Line in Northwest Washington for part of three days.

Metro on Monday denied that a train operator had been instructed to do a track inspection for the fire, saying the request was for an inspection on an unrelated circuit problem that didn’t pose a safety concern. The probe followed reports on social media about the incident, which was captured on dispatch recordings.

The Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, which Congress created to regulate system safety, has previously cited Metro for putting passengers in possible danger by requesting visual checks with loaded trains. Those admonishments prompted Metro in March 2020 to prohibit passenger trains from performing track inspections.

The investigation comes during the second week on the job for new Metro General Manager Randy Clarke, who has pledged to restore service levels while fostering a culture of safety. The transit system is hoping to lure back riders more than nine months into a federal safety investigation that has suspended more than half its rail fleet.

Red Line service was restored Monday morning on the shutdown section of track that stretched between the Farragut North and Van Ness stations. Service through that corridor was suspended about 9:30 p.m. Saturday, when a low-voltage electrical fire sparked at the Dupont Circle station.

“Investigators are continuing interviews with Metrorail personnel and other work such as data reviews as part of the effort to verify details of the safety event that began late Saturday,” safety commission spokesman Max Smith said in a statement.

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Metro spokesman Ian Jannetta said in a statement that the transit agency’s chief safety officer and acting chief operating officer found “no evidence a train was directed to perform a track inspection in an area where there was a report of smoke or fire.”

“Metro has performed a detailed synchronization and review of multiple data recording sources along with employee statements to make this determination,” he said.

Metro said a preliminary analysis shows the failure of a low-voltage electrical cable appeared to have led to a fire that damaged nearby cables.

Clarke on Sunday apologized in a tweet to riders for the service interruption. His response was accompanied by a written explanation that Metro posted to Twitter on Sunday that denied sending a passenger train toward the fire.

While the response was intended to demonstrate transparency, the message appeared to conflict with radio communication dispatches between Metro’s Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC) and the operator of the Red Line train, according to recordings captured by OpenMHz.com, a website that records and broadcasts emergency response communications.

The recordings were first discovered by journalist Dave Statter of Statter911.com, an online news site that covers fire and emergency management news.

In the recordings, which are marked as taking place about 9:10 p.m. Saturday and correspond with the timing of the fire, a controller asks the operator of Train No. 108 for a track inspection, although she does not say why.

“One zero eight give me a track inspection please, over,” the controller said.

“Command, one zero eight on way to Dupont …” the operator responds.

The controller then asks two more times for a track inspection.

About two minutes later, the operator tells the controller “going on ahead of me, looks like sparks coming out but I’m not close to it. But there’s something on the right side wall.” The controller instructs the train to stop, and the operator says, “I’m stopped already.”

The controller instructs the operator to make an announcement onboard the train to inform passengers of the stoppage.

No one was injured during the incident. Metro released a statement Sunday announcing that it had looked into allegations that a passenger train was sent to check on the fire.

In a statement Monday, Jannetta said the dispatch recordings captured Train No. 108 having lost speed commands because of a track circuit issue on the Red Line. The controller in the recordings was asking the operator to inspect the track for the bobbing circuit — a circuit that is behaving inconsistently, but does not represent an immediate safety issue — which is allowed, Jannetta said.

“There were no reports of smoke or fire conditions at that time,” he said. Passenger trains remain prohibited from performing inspections for known or suspected hazards.

In another statement, Jannetta said Chief Safety Officer Theresa Impastato and acting chief operations officer Mike Hass had found no evidence “a train was directed to perform a track inspection in an area where there was a report of smoke or fire.”

The statement said a review of multiple data recording sources along with employee statements revealed that within two minutes of a fire alarm activating at a drainage pumping station near Dupont Circle, the ROCC tried to contact Train No. 108 to instruct the operator to stop at Woodley Park. The communication attempt failed before the train could be held at the station, Metro said.

“Shortly thereafter, the operator of train 108 communicated to the control center that he lost speed commands and the controller responded with a request for an inspection,” the statement said. “Within moments, the operator reported that he saw sparks on the tunnel wall ahead and observed smoke. This report, along with a report from the station manager at Dupont Circle Station, were the first reports of smoke conditions.”

The service suspension follows a smoke incident Friday that briefly suspended service. Service on the Red Line also bypassed the Tenleytown station on Monday because of an escalator outage.

Metro is also dealing with a strike of more than 200 MetroAccess paratransit drivers, utility workers, dispatchers, maintenance technicians and road supervisors at a MetroAccess center in Landover.

The employees, members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, are seeking a new contract with Transdev, a multinational transportation provider Metro has contracted to run the Hubbard Road facility. Workers are asking for at least $20 an hour while saying their garage has been short more than 100 workers for more than a year and a half, which the union says has forced drivers to work at least 48 hours a week.

Jannetta said Metro is monitoring the dispute, adding that there are no disruptions to customers.

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