Tuesday night around 10, a Red Line train, packed with Nats and Team USA hockey fans, departs the Farragut North Metro station toward Dupont Circle.
It stops in a tunnel, barred from proceeding by a signal stuck on red.
And thus began a nearly hour-long ordeal that involved frantic riders, a non-functioning radio system, a harried train operator, and passengers who ventured out onto the tracks as Metro workers scrambled to find them.
It also marked at least the third time in a year that a Metro train stalled in a tunnel for a significant period of time with scores of passengers on board, sending frontline workers and anxious passengers into a panic.
New details from passengers and a review of the back-and-forth conversation recorded on the transit system’s radio system indicate that one problem quickly evolved into another.
The problem: The train operator could not travel past the red signal.
The plan: The operator would need to reverse the train and cross to the opposite set of tracks.
If all had gone according to plan, it would have been a quick maneuver.
“Okay, 101. Here’s what I’d like you to do,” the dispatcher says, speaking to the train operator. “I want you to key down, reverse in safely and efficiently. . . . 101, how do you copy?
Silence. Then, unrelated noise on the channel.
The dispatcher comes on again: “Train 101?”
For the next 11 minutes, there is no answer to the dispatcher’s increasingly urgent calls, according to the recording reviewed by The Washington Post.
“Operator on 101 . . . do you copy direct?”
“Train 101? . . . Key down. Reverse in. How do you copy?”
“Have you reversed in, 101?”
Finally, the dispatcher directs a worker at Farragut North to walk onto the tracks and investigate.
“We’ve been trying to contact this operator. I don’t know if he’s got a crush load or what. Nobody’s answering the radio,” the dispatcher says. “Do you have a visual of anybody on that train? Because we need to know if these operators are okay or what’s going on.”
The employee proceeds to one end of the train. The dispatcher asks whether the train is crowded.
“Roger,” the worker says, “the train is crowded.”
That was an understatement. On the inside of the new 7000-series train, riders were packed like sardines. Matthew Salter, 47, was commuting to his home in North Bethesda. It was getting stuffy. At first, it wasn’t a big deal. There was jovial intermingling between Nationals fans and hockey addicts coming from a match at Verizon Center.
“It was warm,” Salter said Wednesday, “but everybody was in good humor.”
There was no announcement from the operator about what was going on. Instead, the train’s automated announcement system would burst to life every few minutes with a promise that the train would be moving “momentarily.”
At first, people chuckled with the irony. Then, it stopped being funny. The mood darkened with each successive announcement, as riders grew weary and nervous.
Some passengers gave up their seats to senior citizens. Others cursed under their breath. Some hoisted their cellphones in the air, searching for a signal to contact friends and relatives. Salter described a climate of “gallows humor.”
“I think people were just getting a bit fed up, really,” he said. “It was just like, ‘This really sucks.’ ”
Then the operator opened the door to the car and waded through the crowd. He passed Art Kellermann, an emergency physician who lives in the District
“As he comes through, he sort of blurts out, ‘I’m sorry there’s a red light, I can’t go through a red light,’ ” Kellermann recalled. “He didn’t know what was wrong.”
The operator also passed by Lori Kulik, 51, of Bethesda, who had been returning home from the Nationals game.
“He said, ‘I’ve lost radio communication. So I can’t move the train until I can talk to someone and make sure it’s okay to move,’” Kulik said.
A passenger by Kulik asked how long it was going to take. The operator didn’t have an answer.
“I mean I felt like the driver was panicking,” Kulik said, “and that didn’t help with the mood.”
Helpless to make the process move any faster, she did what any rider stuck on an overcrowded, miserable train is supposed to do: She whipped out her phone and tweeted.
“Stuck on red line metro train,” she blasted to her 28 followers. “Help!!!!”
Nervous chatter turned into sweating, dizziness and confusion. One passenger became disoriented and sat on the floor, Kulik said, fearing he would faint. Another pounded on the window.
By that point, the employee who had walked the tracks from Farragut North had made contact with the train operator and instructed him on what to do. They were ready to move, and got the go-ahead from the dispatcher to reverse into the pocket track so they could bypass the signal and proceed to Dupont Circle.
Unfortunately, that’s when a couple of riders decided to take things into their own hands and get off the train.
“I got a customer walking on the roadway right now from the train,” came an urgent voice on the radio channel.
The dispatcher jumped into action. “Stop the train! Stop the train, 101,” he said. “Stop the train, stop the train.”
An employee headed off on foot to find the passenger and escorted him to the platform.
That’s when passengers heard an announcement: “Passengers, do not exit the train! Please remain aboard the car.”
Salter was puzzled. Who would be crazy enough to evacuate into a dark subway tunnel?
Finally, the dispatcher was notified that the self-evacuating customer had been safely deposited on the station platform. Time to try to move the train again.
Then, another message on the scanner: “Unit 19,” the employee said, “we got another customer exiting the train.”
Another voice: “They exited off the train that’s in the pocket track, onto the roadway . . . I believe someone’s trying to get them back on the train.”
Finally, nearly 40 minutes after the episode had begun, the dispatcher asked for an employee to do a complete walk through to ensure that no passengers were on the track.
“670, are we clear in that pocket track, 670?” the dispatcher asked.
“That’s affirmative,” answered an employee. “Pocket track is all clear.”
Finally, the train continued on its way.
On Wednesday, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said two customers were escorted back to the station platform, “where they became irate with the maintenance worker and the station manager who were trying to understand why they left the train.” Police were called, Stessel said, but the two left before they arrived.
“Frankly, they could have been fatally injured by contacting the third rail or getting struck by a train,” Stessel said. “Leaving the train in the absence of an emergency is never a good idea.”
The cause of the non-functioning radio had not been determined Wednesday, Stessel said. He said the signal in the tunnel was stuck on red because of a switch problem.
“So, in total, this was a 41-minute delay,” Stessel said. “Fifteen minutes attributable to a switch problem, and 26 minutes attributable to unauthorized persons in the tunnel.”
After the ordeal concluded, Kellermann said he had sympathy for the train operator, who was placed in what he called an impossible situation.
“This is the exact problem we had a year ago,” Kellermann said, referring to the L’Enfant Plaza smoke calamity that left one dead and dozens sickened. “You had a bunch of passengers who were completely in the dark about what was going on. . . . The concerns were clearly, no communication, no passenger ability to get or receive information, from the operator or from their mobile devices, there was no way any of us could notify family member or loved ones. We were basically locked in the train.”
The event also was a case study in the ripple effects of a Metro meltdown.
When Kulik arrived back at Farragut North, the mad rush for the exits caused the escalator to break down. She emerged into crowded Farragut Square, where it was difficult to hail a cab and Uber prices had surged to 150 percent. Maybe, her husband suggested, Metro had cleared up?
“We walked north and my husband said why don’t we just get on at Dupont Circle,” she recalled.
Her response: “Absolutely not.”