During the afternoon rush hour on Jan. 9, a Metro controller could not reach a Red Line train as it approached a bustling Union Station platform. "If you can't transmit, go to your handset, over," the controller said, before radioing someone else at the station to get the driver's attention.
"Try to get this operator to respond to me," the controller said. "He is not responding."
About 50 seconds later, after regaining contact with the train, the controller surmised: "Must have hit a dead spot" — an apparent acknowledgment from one of Metro's workers that the nation's second-busiest subway relies on a radio network that does not always work.
A Washington Post analysis of radio communications during rush-hour commutes in the week before a derailment outside Farragut North on Jan. 15, an incident in which response was slowed by poor radio communication, found more than a dozen instances in which Metro workers experienced distorted transmissions or otherwise struggled to communicate via radio.
After the derailment, Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld acknowledged some "spottiness" on the 117-mile system. The Post's review, drawing upon more than 20 hours of scanner traffic captured by the website Broadcastify, provides a window into how widespread these failures can be for Metro. Several incidents found by The Post occurred on the Red Line, the system's oldest.
Former Prince George's fire chief Marc Bashoor — who served as chairman of the fire chiefs committee for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which oversaw planning for a Metro radio-and-cellphone cabling project after a deadly incident in L'Enfant Plaza in 2015 — said radios must be reliable where public safety is concerned, even in problem-prone places aboveground such as skyscrapers.
The same standard, he said, should apply to Metro's tunnels. "If I can't reach for that radio and call for help," Bashoor said, "people die."
In response to The Post's findings, Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly acknowledged that tunnels in particular present challenges for the radios, with "myriad sources of potential interference." Metro has procedures in place when communications drop out, including landline phones every 800 feet underground that allow employees to reach the Rail Operations Control Center.
Because they were captured on a scanner, Ly said, the transmissions reviewed by The Post are a partial record and "do not reflect what a user would hear." She said a request that a message be repeated does not necessarily indicate a radio problem.
The Post identified nine instances in which controllers or train operators explicitly said radio distortion made a transmission inaudible, and five more in which controllers repeated instructions amid what appeared to be garbled transmissions.
In one case, a controller said a train was holding "with no radio communication." In another, Metro workers expressed urgency about knowing when technicians would resolve an unspecified radio problem.
"Can [inaudible] please start making considerations for . . . our officers until we can get the radio issue resolved?"
Metro declined a request for an interview with Wiedefeld.
The derailment on Jan. 15 occurred because a rail snapped underneath a passing train, a preliminary investigation found. The operator and a transit police officer lost coverage on their handheld radios for at least 10 minutes, as rail operations controllers tried repeatedly to contact them.
The gap in radio communications slowed the evacuation, which ultimately took about 90 minutes.
After the incident, Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) wrote Wiedefeld to ask for an update on the status of an effort to upgrade the radios.
Wiedefeld responded that Metro is taking a further step to ensure radio availability in the tunnels, one not yet announced publicly: purchasing 2,500 "dual-band" radios capable of accessing both the Metro and public-safety radio systems. The new radios are expected to be delivered this year, he wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The Post.
"While there has been progress, the continued problems with this network are unacceptable," Warner said in a separate statement. "Riders deserve peace of mind that, when they get on Metro, the system is prepared to respond quickly and professionally in the event of an emergency."
In one instance identified by The Post, radio trouble appeared to contribute to brief confusion about a train's location. "There is still a train ahead of me at L'Enfant," said one train operator Jan. 8.
"You are coming in very distorted. Can you try again, please, over," a controller responded.
"Is there a train ahead of me?" the train operator said again.
"Negative," came the reply.
Later that week, on Jan. 12, a controller attempted to contact the operator of a Red Line train approaching Grosvenor-Strathmore station. There were a few moments of garbled sound in response. The controller tried again: "Train 116, a unit [supervisor] tried to contact you. Try your handset at a different location — it's coming in very distorted."
Metro has long struggled with radio problems. In the minutes before a 2010 derailment between Farragut North and Dupont Circle, radio issues complicated communications between rail controllers and multiple trains on the Red Line: An "operator experienced difficulty communicating with [central control]; she reportedly was 'calling and calling and calling,' " according to findings from the National Transportation Safety Board.
In 2015, crews responding to a smoke incident at L'Enfant Plaza station could not effectively communicate over the radios, authorities said. Carol Glover, 61, died of respiratory failure, and scores of other Yellow Line passengers were sickened in a smoke-filled tunnel. Those particular radio issues, involving communication between Metro and the D.C. fire department, have been resolved.
And in 2016, after a switch problem caused a train to stop outside Farragut North, controllers lost contact with the operator for 11 minutes as they issued increasingly urgent instructions. Finally, central control directed a worker at Farragut North onto the tracks to investigate.
Metro spokesman Dan Stessel told The Post that the tunnel radio systems have been assessed as having an "availability" above 99 percent every month for the past year. That metric is a measure of how often radio equipment, including about 750 amplifiers, is fully functioning; transmission issues that are reported count against the score.
Metro is in the process of upgrading its radios to a fully digital system, with thicker transmission cables that provide greater frequency, capacity and protection against the elements. The project is estimated to cost $332 million, and the work is scheduled to be complete in 2022.
Federal Transit Administration inspectors in the past two years have cited Metro dozens of times for defects involving radio communications. In some cases, inspectors detailed moments when "radio interference or garbled messages made clear communication difficult."
In July, for instance, a federal inspector documented a previously unreported incident involving a crew working on the power system at the Red Line's Forest Glen station — a job that requires stepping on and off the tracks, and frequent updates to and from the rail control center. At some point, those updates stopped.
"The [rail traffic controllers] could no longer communicate with personnel via radio," the federal inspector wrote. Eventually, the work crew realized their radios were picking up only silence; they called in from a landline and were told to cease work and exit the tracks.
The record of communications analyzed by The Post reflects only those transmissions captured on a scanner, which jumps from channel to channel and records just one at a time. As a result, the analysis does not contain every communication and may not reflect every radio problem experienced during those hours.
The analysis identified one instance four days before the derailment outside Farragut North in which a rail controller announced a communications problem with a train: "All personnel stand clear," she said, "I have a train holding with no radio communication."
Rail experts say radio communications issues are not unexpected, even if the goal is complete reliability. To minimize risk, rail systems rely on backup mechanisms such as emergency call boxes, landlines and, in some cases, cellphones.
Those contingencies played a role in a rush-hour incident on the Red Line on the morning of Jan. 10. A customer had fallen on the crowded Cleveland Park platform, but the Metro control center could not immediately reach the station manager at the scene.
"Station manager at Cleveland Park," the controller said.
The response was unintelligible.
"Station manager at Cleveland Park. Could you change your location, and [try] your message again? I'm not getting it."
The controller then told the station manager about the incident, adding, "Your radio is very distorted."
A train was instructed to hold while Metro investigated. Meanwhile, further instructions: "Get to a landline when you get a chance," the controller said.
"Copy that," the station manager replied. "Will get . . . a landline."
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