Metro plans to conduct monthly inspections of power cables and other electrical equipment throughout the subway as it tries to avoid problems such as the March 14 track fire that led to a precautionary 24-hour shutdown of the rail system, officials said Thursday.
General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld and Metro’s acting chief safety officer, Lou Brown, said the electrical inspections would start April 1 and continue until Metro develops a broader, more comprehensive subway inspection regime, which they said will encompass more than just the system’s power-related infrastructure.
At a meeting of the Metro board’s safety committee, the two described the circumstances that led to the March 16 shutdown, including the track fire two days earlier in a tunnel near the McPherson Square station.
While train service was suspended, they said, an emergency inspection of the rail system’s 600 “jumper cables” (a type of heavy-duty power line) and numerous connector assemblies that are used to attach cables to one another found a total of 27 defects that posed imminent fire hazards. In 338 additional locations, inspectors discovered less serious, “non-emergency” problems, according to a written report.
Wiedefeld, hired as general manager in November, and Brown, who has been filling in since September for ousted safety chief James Dougherty, were at a loss to explain why there were so many problems with cables and connectors, given that the transit agency’s since-departed top engineer promised last spring that a thorough inspection would be done.
“I want to get to the bottom of it,” Wiedefeld said after the meeting. “I don’t know yet. That’s why we’re doing an investigation.”
An electrical fire Jan. 12, 2015, on tracks near Metro’s L’Enfant Plaza station filled a tunnel with smoke, sickening scores of train passengers, one of whom died. The National Transportation Safety Board later warned the transit agency about the condition of its jumper cables and connectors. Officials said damaged or improper insulation left high-voltage electrical wires exposed in some places, creating fire hazards.
The L’Enfant fire involved jumper cables, the NTSB said last year. Metro’s then-deputy general manager and top engineer, Rob Troup, responded by ordering a systemwide inspection of jumper cables, according to a memo he gave the board. Troup resigned last month in the first major personnel shake-up by Wiedefeld.
Although the trouble with the jumper cables was believed to have been fixed, the recent fire near the McPherson station also involved jumper cables, Wiedefeld said. Because he could not vouch for the efficacy of last year’s inspection, he said, he ordered the subway closed March 16 for an emergency reinspection.
Board member Mortimer Downey voiced the frustration of other members Thursday.
“How did we get in such bad shape?” said Downey, who was board chairman throughout last year. “How did we get to this point? Not necessarily to fix blame, although maybe fixing blame would be necessary. But a year ago, we went through the same drill,” dealing with the problem of dangerously defective jumper cables.
After referring to the 2015 NTSB warning, Downey quoted from Troup’s memo.
“So we’re told there’s a problem,” Downey continued. “We’re told there was a solution. There’s no explanation in my mind that says we were told the right thing or that the right thing was done. Either the inspections weren’t done; or they were done and missed major defects; or maybe they were done, and the replacements were not put in place. . . .
“How do we get assurance that this time we’ll do it and do it right?” he said as Wiedefeld and Brown listened quietly. “There have been too many occasions here where we’re given a plan and we don’t see the delivery. . . . I have no confidence that being told it will be done has anything to do with seeing that it does get done.”
Wiedefeld replied: “The questions you are asking are the exact questions I was asking” in the hours after the March 14 tunnel fire near the McPherson station. “The point is, I could not get those answers. And that’s why I did not have confidence in opening the system.”
“We’re going to find out,” Wiedefeld promised. “And we’re going to be transparent about what we find out. And we’re going to be explicit as to what we’re going to do about it.”
As for the monthly inspections, starting April 1, Wiedefeld was not specific whether they will cause service disruptions and delays for commuters. But he said he has no plan to order another temporary shutdown of the system.
While the monthly inspections continue, he said, Metro will develop a program “for more thorough inspections of lots of things out there,” not just power equipment.
“Getting a more systemic approach to these issues,” he said of Metro’s numerous infrastructure woes.