After a series of safety concerns, Metro will pay to retrofit nearly 200 of the system’s brand-new 7000-series railcars with chain barriers to help prevent people with impaired vision from falling between cars.
The decision, first reported by WAMU, came after concerns were raised by the Federal Transit Administration about the safety of the new design — and after a blind passenger reported plummeting into the gap while trying to board a Red Line train.
Currently, some of the gaps between the new railcars are equipped with rubber barriers — a change in design from what had been used on previous train models. For the 1000-6000 series trains, all of the gaps feature a pair of chains clipped to the car on either side, meant to alert a person waving a hand or a cane that they should not move forward.
But the rubber barricades on the 7000-series cars are set further back from the platform, and there are nine inches of space in the middle, between each side of the barrier — enough space that a blind person brandishing a cane in front of them might fail to realize that the gap isn’t a doorway.
Metro officials say the rubber barricade is compliant with federal disabilities regulations, but they decided to conduct further tests on the effectiveness of the new barriers after the FTA sent a letter in June that bolstered the concerns of advocates for people with disabilities and requested further analysis.
“While the analysis concluded that the existing style of the between-car barriers are safe and detectableMetro has decided to standardize the 7000-series fleet to use the same chain barriers that are found on the legacy fleet,” Metro spokeswoman Morgan Dye said.
Dye said that Metro officials have already alerted the railcar manufacturer, Kawasaki, to begin installing the chain barriers on all future railcars delivered to the system. But Metro will have to pay to retrofit all of the cars currently in the system — 192, as of early September— and the process will take until the end of 2017, Dye said.
She did not say how much the retrofit would cost.
“It felt normal. I put out my hand on the train itself, took a step and fell literally in the gap that I thought was the entrance into the train,” said Kosub. “But it was the gap between two train cars that was a perfect, David-sized hole.”
Tall and thin, Kosub suddenly found himself beneath the platform and in between two loud, massive machines, he said. Although it was during the middle of the day, the Red Line rider said no one saw him fall or heard him scream for help. He feared the train would start moving any second, crushing him.
“This was the closest I have ever been to feeling like I was going to die. And I have been in some harrowing accidents before but never one where I found myself that close,” he said.
Kosub said he placed his hands on the platform and pulled himself up and off the track bed just before the train departed. He was not injured, and two Metro station personnel helped him retrieve his cane from the tracks, he said.
But the risk of visually-impaired riders falling between railcars has come up before — and it took years of advocacy work before Metro began putting devices in place to help prevent tragedies from happening.
In July 1990, a 69-year-old blind man died when he fell between two cars at Court House Metro station; the operator failed to notice the passengers yelling and screaming as she closed the train’s doors and pulled away from the station.
A jury later ordered Metro to pay the man’s family more than $500,000 in damages.
In October 1997, a 56-year-old man with poor eyesight stepped into the gap between railcars, and fell underneath the train. No one saw him fall, and the train moved off, crushing the man.
At the time of his death, the Washington Post reported that the issue was becoming an increasing concern:
Brown’s death was Metro’s third fatality involving a visually impaired rider who had fallen between rail cars, and it points to the challenges that disabled riders face in riding the system.
Many cues that are provided for Metro’s 2,500 blind riders, such as the granite platform edges or the bumpy tiles that the transit agency plans to install along platforms to mark danger, don’t help visually impaired riders distinguish between open doors and the gaps between cars.
“It’s a problem that Metro has acknowledged,” said Julie Carroll, a lobbyist for the American Council of the Blind. “We have asked for some sort of barrier between the cars, chains, or some kind of accordion barrier so you wouldn’t be able to fall through between the cars.”
Nearly 100 new rail cars that should be in service by the end of the decade will have such barriers, according to Metro spokeswoman Leona Agouridis. The barriers are required on new cars under federal law.
In February 1997, a man hurrying to board a train at Van Dorn during the morning rush hour fell between the two cars and onto the tracks.
“He swung his stick where the cars are attached and took a step, thinking it was the door,” Stephanie Ford, a passenger on the train, told the Post at the time. “He bumped up against the car I was in as he fell, and I could see him on the track.”
He was rescued by the train operator and several passengers, who lifted him out of the gap and onto the platform without injury.
In addition to adding chains between train cars in the 1990s, Metro took other steps to try to prevent similar incidents — including broadcasting announcements from the doorways of the trains, indicating to people with disabilities that it was safe to enter and giving them an audio cue of where the doors were located.
Up until that point, Metro’s trains doors only chimed when closing, and not when they opened.