The Federal Transit Administration said Wednesday that it plans to conduct a review of Metro’s safety programs for subway and bus operations after a fatal incident last month in which scores of train passengers were caught in a smoke-filled tunnel.
The review is set to begin March 2 and end in late May, possibly with recommendations for improving the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s systems for making sure that trains and buses run safely, FTA spokesman Nathan Robinson said.
“This is really to see what the safety culture at WMATA is like,” Robinson said. After the Jan. 12 smoke incident near the L’Enfant Plaza station, which left one rider dead, he said, “we really want to get into the details with WMATA and see how they’re implementing their safety management system and see if we can help them make changes.”
The D.C. Council’s first public hearing on the fatal incident is scheduled for Thursday.
In another development Wednesday, D.C. officials said firefighters have recorded 10 radio failures inside Metro stations in the three weeks since the Jan. 12 incident. During the Jan. 12 crisis, firefighters in the L’Enfant Plaza station encountered radio problems and could not communicate effectively with commanders above ground.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said Wednesday that she had ordered continuous testing of firefighters’ radios until communication problems in Metro stations and tunnels are resolved. “Every station should be touched every week,” Bowser said. “I expect that this is the new protocol for the foreseeable future.”
Previously, firefighters tested their radios in Metro stations monthly, and occasional malfunctions were handled by an informal network of radio and information-technology staffers at the city’s fire department and Metro, officials have said.
“Radio networks require ongoing testing and tuning to ensure reliability, so we are pleased that the District is conducting frequent, comprehensive testing,” said Metro spokesman Dan Stessel, who noted that Metrorail has 34 stations and 55 miles of tunnel segments in the city.
Metro is only the second transit system selected for an FTA “safety management inspection” since the federal agency received statutory authority to perform such inspections in 2012, Robinson said. He said the other review, of the Chicago Transit Authority’s safety programs, began in the fall.
Responding to the FTA’s announcement, the chairman of Metro’s board of directors, Mortimer Downey, said federal transit officials have “an important role in transit safety under their expanded statutory authority, and we welcome their participation.”
In the Jan. 12 crisis, officials said, an electrical malfunction just south of the L’Enfant Plaza station filled the tunnel with smoke, which permeated a six-car Yellow Line train that stopped in the tunnel. Riders, many of them sickened, waited more then 30 minutes for help to arrive. One passenger died of smoke inhalation.
In a systemwide test of all stations completed about two weeks ago, D.C. firefighters and personnel from the D.C. Office of Unified Communications found nine instances in which radios failed. Those failures were relayed to Metro and work began immediately to correct the problems, D.C. officials said Wednesday.
Another round of tests was completed last week, and one radio failure was recorded.
“They found some places where there was either no communication or suboptimal communication. Since then, I think all but one has been closed out,” Bowser said.
The District’s problems are similar to emergency radio outages that firefighters discovered recently in Metro stations in Montgomery County.
Montgomery firefighters said tests indicated that radios were working in stations there after the Jan. 12 incident. But when they returned last week, firefighters underground were unable to communicate clearly with those on the surface in parts of the Wheaton station, according to Metro.
Montgomery officials said the radio problem was discovered during a routine test involving firefighters in Red Line tunnels and others aboveground. Stessel said that the problem was limited to one end of the Wheaton station and that the problem was fixed Monday.
As for the FTA review, Robinson said federal officials will not inspect the safety of the Metro bus and rail systems but, rather, will study how Metro does the inspections to determine whether they can be improved.
“The purpose . . . is to help WMATA assess the strengths and weaknesses of the safety of operations and identify areas where [WMATA] can further reduce risks and make other improvements,” the FTA said in a statement.
On Capitol Hill, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) called the FTA announcement an “encouraging sign.”
The agency’s relatively new statutory power enables it, Van Hollen said, to “dig deeper into WMATA management” for a more detailed review than was possible in 2009 after a Red Line crash near the Fort Totten station killed eight passengers and a train operator.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) said the safety review needs to be “rigorous, thorough, independent and transparent. People have the right to know what happened on the Yellow Line on January 12, why it happened and what needs to be done so it never happens again.”
Mike DeBonis and Mary Pat Flaherty contributed to this report.