When his Red Line train stalled in a tunnel near Friendship Heights last weekend, Chuck Holmes squeezed “the barest of a 3G signal” from his cellphone looking for any information.
The panicked-sounding train operator wasn’t answering questions, and it didn’t help when another Metro employee, sounding distraught, told passengers: “It is very important! Please close all doors between cars!” as they began to see smoke.
Riders, some crying and climbing over seats, assumed that they would have to walk through the smoky tunnel to the platform, and thoughts of the January 2015 smoke incident near L’Enfant Plaza — which left one rider dead and more than 80 injured — flashed through their minds.
Holmes searched Twitter for information. There was nothing from @Metrorailinfo — the official Metro account. Then he saw this: “RD/Shady Grove @ Friendship Heights report of smoke aboard train 107 - attempting to pull train back to platform #WMATA ^RB.”
When the fire started, Bowles, who was in western Maryland, reached for his computer and, drawing on audio communications and real-time train data published by Metro, tweeted what he knew: Smoke was reported on the train, which Metro was trying to pull back to the platform.
The information was a relief to Holmes, 58, a journalist from Chevy Chase, Md., because it was a sign that he and others on the train would not be herded through the tunnel after all. Passengers had been considering self-evacuating.
“The minute I got to the street, I added it to my Twitter follow list,” Holmes said of @RailTransit
OPS. “God forbid I should ever be in this situation again, but at least I know there’s a resource there. I said the same thing to my co-workers on Sunday. I said, ‘Hey, if you ride the Metro, follow this account. It might come in handy.’ ”
Later, one of Bowles’s Rail Transit OPS partners, Stephen Repetski, 24, culled scanner traffic and real-time location data to put together a minute-by-minute log of what had gone wrong April 23 — days before Metro published a similar but less-detailed account.
In some cities, people who are crime-obsessed make a hobby out of monitoring police scanners, chronicling the mesmerizing — and often devastating — incidents. In the District, transit wonks have made a habit out of monitoring the rails.
Bowles, Repetski and James Pizzurro, 24, launched Rail Transit OPS to document Metro incidents in detail and fill gaps in Metro’s communications with its customers.
At rapid-fire speed, they’ve provided urgent updates on numerous recent Metro incidents. Take April 14, when there were news reports that a Metro train with more than 150 passengers aboard was stalled in a tunnel, possibly under the Potomac River.
Not so, tweeted @RailTransitOPS.
“Train is not under the river; reports indicate it’s approximately 100ft from the platform at Rosslyn. #WMATA.”
Sure enough, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel later confirmed that the Blue Line train stalled 100 feet from the station, not under the Potomac, and that passengers were safe.
So, how did Bowles and his team do it?
In their Google group chat, they determined who was nearest to the incident: Repetski and Bowles. They plotted where the train was heading: the Alexandria railyard. Minutes later, the two were at the Crystal City Metro station recording the ironic turn of events: An older-series Metro train was towing the broken-down 7000-series car — Metro’s newest model — to the railyard.
Repetski uses real-time data and scanner traffic to monitor the rail system. Pizzurro examines historical data from MetroHero, an app he co-created, to gauge performance — whether enough trains are running and if they’re on time. And Bowles, drawing on an encyclopedic knowledge of the rail system derived from years of poring over incident reports, National Transportation Safety Board reports, manuals and documents, pinpoints and contextualizes safety issues.
Official or not, @RailTransitOPS has become a source riders turn to for information when they can’t get it from Metro. Pizzurro says the group’s work is not about bashing Metro or doing the agency’s bidding — it’s about providing paying customers information they deserve.
“For example, they say there’s a track problem,” Pizzurro said. “Obviously, if the track problem is a fire or something, that’s immediate. We feel like that’s something that riders should know about.”
In a statement, Metro said its first alert on the April 23 fire was sent to 23,566 weekend Red Line customers via email and text message in addition to more than 53,000 Twitter followers about 10 minutes after the incident was reported.
A spokeswoman noted that the agency has a responsibility to provide information that is timely but also accurate.
“Hobbyists are commonplace in the transit industry, and we respect their enthusiasm,” spokeswoman Sherri Ly said. “As the official source of information, it is important that we take the time to ensure that information is accurate before release — something that cannot be done by merely listening to the radio.”
In the initial period after that fire, Metro urged customers to heed the direction of front-line employees.
One might ask, can a group of rail enthusiasts be trusted with such an important task as monitoring the operations of a 117-mile rail system that carries hundreds of thousands of riders a day? Bowles is a former retail manager for Verizon whose expertise is largely in auditing, and Pizzurro and Repetski deal largely with information technology and software, not trains — at least not professionally.
Riding the system with Bowles, his knowledge becomes clear. Over the course of an hour, he notices that a Red Line train is operating via automatic train control by the distinct sound he hears over the intercom. He notes that car 7020 is a “hot car” with a possibly busted air-conditioning unit and points out loose bolts and track fasteners on waterlogged tracks at Van Ness.
“One could make the argument that hobbyists shouldn’t be dealing with this kind of stuff,” Pizzurro said. “If someone else more official wants to step into those shoes, or take on this initiative themselves and wholly own it, that’s obviously something that we would like to see. We’re only putting the information out there because it’s not out there.”
Said Repetski, an IT network and systems administrator by day: “We’re not trying to replace their social media accounts, because those should be the place that people go. But, he said, “There’s a little bit of a freedom of being outside of the walls of [Metro headquarters] that lets us do a few more things.”
The rail observers have even come up with their own set of ethics guidelines. Information must be confirmed with two sources — data and a witness account, perhaps. And Metro is given 10 minutes to push out its own alerts — except in emergencies such as the Red Line fire.
Aboard the train April 23, rider Michael Horecki, 26, of Bethesda wondered: “Is there a shooter at the front of the train?” He described the situation as the “horrifying moment that you realize you’re really not in control of what happens next.”
The lack of information from Metro was the scariest part of the experience, he said.
Sunny Zheng, another rail enthusiast and a junior at Carnegie Mellon University studying computer science, said he understands why rail systems sometimes cannot be more forthcoming with information, especially during a crisis. But, he added, that clears the way for independent observers to fill the void.
“Transit agency communication is inherently risk-averse, for very good reason,” said Zheng, who focuses on the Long Island Rail Road, the commuter rail system serving southeastern New York. On “any transit system, delay estimates put out hastily then quickly retracted can give the impression of panic or managerial disarray.
“As outsiders with a different audience, we can report conditions as soon as they’re discovered and forecast the delays based on experience and knowledge of the operation,” Zheng said. “Some of my predictions are speculative in nature and have come out false, but that’s ‘by design,’ and I suspect most readers are aware of that. Improvements in agency communication can help reduce the need for this role but definitely cannot eliminate it.”
Holmes, who was aboard the Red Line train, said the importance of the independent monitors was on display then. When he learned that the train would soon be moving, he warned passengers not to open the doors or try to leave the train on their own, although one rider did pull an emergency release lever, sending smoke seeping into the train and prompting yells.
He described a feeling of “grave relief when the train did start moving backward.”
“During the event and culminating with that was these guys,” he said. “I think they prevented some injuries.”