Nearly a year after a blind person fell into a gap between two of Metro’s new 7000-series rail cars and avoided being crushed by the train by scrambling out, there are still no new protective barriers between some of the cars to prevent a repeat of the incident.
Metro has been working on the problem since September, when the agency informed federal officials it would immediately begin installing new barriers on yet-to-be-delivered cars in the new fleet and then retrofit the cars already in its possession by the end of this year.
But nine months later, Metro says it is working on a final design for a fix and has pushed back the timeline for retrofitting cars to early-to-mid-2018. Meanwhile, at least 160 7000-series rail cars have been delivered to Metro, none of which have a modified design.
Metro officials say they are doing due diligence, getting feedback from the Federal Transit Administration, rail car manufacturer Kawasaki and the disabilities community before rolling out a design for the entire fleet.
But disability rights advocates argue that the issue should have been treated with more urgency.
“It’s not rocket science,” said Kenneth Shiotani, a senior attorney at the National Disability Rights Network.
Some of the gaps between the new rail cars are equipped with rubber barriers — a change in design from previous train models, which feature a pair of chains clipped to the car on either side that are meant to alert a person waving a hand or a cane that they should not move forward.
Shiotani first raised the issue of the risks posed by the new barriers in September 2015. The FTA forwarded his concerns to Metro in January 2016, seven months before a blind passenger reported falling into the gap. Shiotani said he immediately realized the safety risk posed by the barrier design during one of his first encounters with a 7000-series train: “It seems like this is something they could have done a long time ago.”
Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld rejected the idea that the agency lacked urgency in fixing the problem. But, he said, the timeline for a fix is lengthier than originally anticipated because of the complicated and exacting steps required to change the official design of the cars with the manufacturer, Kawasaki.
“They’ve got to make sure it meets all the design standards and it does what it’s supposed to do, because they’re going to be on the hook if something happens,” Wiedefeld said.
David Kosub, a 36-year-old health science policy analyst at the National Institutes of Health, was attempting to board an inbound Red Line train at Grosvenor-Strathmore station on July 29. He used his cane to tap around, struck what he thought was the doorway and then took a step.
The next thing he knew, he had slipped between two cars onto the tracks, the platform about the height of his armpits. He was wedged in the space between two walls of stainless steel.
“It was just perfectly sized for me to slip right through,” Kosub recalled. He was stuck tight, unable to turn around and face the platform. “The train cars were literally just these giant metal behemoths right in front of me.”
He bellowed for help, but it was the middle of the afternoon at a station near the end of the Red Line and the platform was empty. He was at the rear of the train, too far for the operator to hear him over the churning of the engine.
“After jumping up and trying to reach for anything or yell for anyone, at one point I heard the train starting to make sounds as if it was going to move again,” Kosub said. “And that’s when I, like, bloody-murder screamed as loud as I could. And then I heard the decompression brake sounds again.”
Kosub was lucky. Tall, thin and conditioned by running marathons, he placed his hands on the edge of the platform behind him and tried to push himself out of the hole, as though he were boosting himself out of a swimming pool. It took a couple tries, but he got enough height that his feet were able to reach the side of the car. He pushed off the rail car, rolled onto his back and scrambled the rest of the way out of the hole just as the train lurched forward and began to pull away from the station.
Lying on the platform, he caught his breath and then started screaming again for help. His cane, he realized, was still on the track bed. Two station managers came to his assistance and helped him retrieve his cane. But they did not seem to believe he had fallen between the cars.
Even after filing reports with Metro, raising the alarm over social media, appearing at a meeting of the agency’s Accessibility Advisory Committee and sharing his experiences with the media, Kosub has not heard from Metro since a few weeks after the incident occurred.
“It was extremely frustrating,” Kosub said. “I kept feeling like, does Metro not believe me? I had that in the back of my mind for a while, because it didn’t seem like they were communicating, or at least wanting to communicate about it.”
And he fears they don’t see the design flaw as a grave safety concern.
“I don’t want to die. Or I don’t want anyone else to die. That’s all I care about,” Kosub said.
Up until two years ago, Metro’s entire fleet of rail cars had protective chain barriers between each car to help prevent such an accident — safeguards that existed on Metro cars since the early 1990s. Those chains were nearly flush with the platform, so riders wouldn’t be able to take a step past the edge without hitting the two sets of chains.
But on 7000-series trains, those chains only bridge alternating gaps. The new cars operate in pairs, sharing some electrical components. In the space between the two paired rail cars, there are still chains similar to the design used in previous models.
But because pairs of trains are frequently coupled and uncoupled in rail yards, Metro changed the design of the barriers that protect the space between them so workers would not need to physically unlatch chains every time they wanted to separate one pair from another pair.
They opted for rubber bumpers that are set farther back from the platform and have a nine-inch gap between them.
Kosub thinks the design made it possible for him to fall in the space. He said he swung his cane through the space between the barriers, thinking he was boarding the train in the right spot because he didn’t feel his cane hit the jangling metal chains.
Metro has denied that the gaps are a problem.
In a letter to Metro in January 2016, FTA officials said the new design created a safety concern for riders with visual impairments and might not meet the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act.
“In addition to the size of the gap, the barriers on the 7000-series cars also appear to be recessed from the side of the car farther from the platform than the chains and bars that perform this function throughout the existing [Metro] fleet,” wrote Linda Ford, associate administrator in the FTA’s Office of Civil Rights. “They may therefore be inadequate to provide the level of detectability needed to prevent, deter or warn passengers with vision disabilities from inadvertently mistaking the gap for an open doorway.”
In response, Metro acknowledged that although the agency had performed engineering tests to ensure that the barriers met noise and movement requirements, they had not performed any tests to ensure that they would actually stop blind people from falling in. They ended up performing those tests this past August, asking six people with visual impairments to walk to the edge of the platform from the fare gate, identify what part of the train and what kind of between-car barrier they were facing, and navigate themselves toward the train door.
After that test, Metro told FTA officials they remained confident in the safety of the barrier design. But they decided they would change the design to chain barriers.
Metro “will install traditional chain barriers between all cars and has already engaged the 7000-series vendor in this decision,” Wiedefeld wrote in a September letter to the FTA. “Cars that are still in production and all future orders will have the chain barriers installed prior to delivery to WMATA, and cars that are currently in revenue service will be retrofitted over the course of the next 8-15 months.”
Now, it may be next summer before those trains are all retrofitted with the new barriers.
Wiedefeld reiterated last week that he doesn’t think the new design is a safety risk and that the rubber bumpers may still be an improvement over the older barriers.
“I think it’s a little bit debatable which design is better or best,” Wiedefeld said, “but we heard from the community, and they feel the chains are best, so we’re putting them back up.”