Tes­ti­mony shows many were in a haze while train was stranded

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - Dr. Grid­lock ROBERT THOM­SON

The Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board doesn’t hold tri­als. When its hear­ings are done, the chair­man doesn’t stand and de­liver a ver­dict, pro­nounc­ing a de­fen­dant guilty.

In fact, there’s no de­fen­dant. But the court of public opin­ion is a bit dif­fer­ent, and some judg­ments can be made in the case of Metro riders vs. the transit au­thor­ity.

The hear­ing tes­ti­mony and the tran­scripts of in­ter­views with par­tic­i­pants in the Jan. 12 calamity that left 61-year-old Carol Glover of Alexandria dead re­veal this: No­body had a clear idea what any­body else was do­ing as smoke filled the L’En­fant Plaza sta­tion.

Time af­ter time in the writ­ten tes­ti­mony, you read about Metro em­ploy­ees and D.C. fire­fight­ers act­ing on their train­ing and work­ing to pro­tect peo­ple.

Rarely do so many peo­ple who are try­ing to do the right thing in­di­vid­u­ally achieve such a poor re­sult col­lec­tively.

Let’s look at one facet of that very com­plex scene to see how well-mean­ing peo­ple could op­er­ate at cross-pur­poses be­cause they saw only part of the pic­ture: Why couldn’t the Yel­low Line train back out of the tun­nel and re­turn its pas­sen­gers to the L’En­fant Plaza plat­form?

Op­er­a­tor James Cur­ley had stopped his Yel­low Line train when he couldn’t see any far­ther, and smoke be­gan to fill his train. He fol­lowed pro­ce­dure and spent two min­utes get­ting from the front to the rear of the train with the in­ten­tion of re­vers­ing course to L’En­fant Plaza.

While Cur­ley and the Rail Oper­a­tions Con­trol Cen­ter (ROCC) were talk­ing, con­trollers also were at­tempt­ing to clear the train be­hind him from the L’En­fant Plaza plat­form. Transit po­lice on the plat­form, try­ing to pro­tect the peo­ple on the sec­ond train, had ev­ery­one aboard evac­u­ate, in­clud­ing any­one who could move the train.

Con­trollers in the ROCC didn’t seem to know what was oc­cur­ring on the plat­form— at least ini­tially — be­cause they re­peat­edly tried to con­tact the empty train.

This past week, Metro of­fi­cials con­firmed that the train par­tially block­ing the plat­form would not have pre­vented Cur­ley from mov­ing his own train back­ward for an evac­u­a­tion.

To do so, Cur­ley needed the con­trol cen­ter’s help, and he said in his NTSB in­ter­view a few­days af­ter the in­ci­dent that he was in “con­stant com­mu­ni­ca­tion” with the con­trol cen­ter. (This part of the com­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tem ap­pears to have worked fine.)

But the con­trol cen­ter couldn’t move the train. Trains haven’t been un­der au­to­matic con­trol since the Red Line crash in 2009. Cur­ley had to move the train. At that early mo­ment, he felt that all he needed was “per­mis­sion” from the con­trollers.

Their mon­i­tors still showed power to the third rail. But that mo­ment— if it re­ally ex­isted— would slip away. Metro Deputy Gen­eral-Man­ager Rob Troup said last week that the ca­ble fire in the tun­nel left the third rail with in­suf­fi­cient power to move the train, some­thing that wasn’t de­tected at the time.

The con­trol room ap­par­ently was en­veloped in its own haze about what was hap­pen­ing with the plat­form, the tun­nel and the third rail.

“We didn’t know who was do­ing what,” Fan­nie Smith, a rail oper­a­tions con­trol su­per­vi­sor, told in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

In the midst of all this con­fu­sion, she said, “We had lost con­trol.”

It be­came very hard to fol­low pro­ce­dure “be­cause we had so much go­ing on at one time,” Smith said.

Cur­ley, with a train full of gasp­ing pas­sen­gers be­hind him, was trou­bleshoot­ing a new prob­lem: The brakes had locked. So with the ROCC’s per­mis­sion, he left the cab to check them.

But time flies when you’re chok­ing, and some riders were get­ting im­pa­tient. Cur­ley said he could see peo­ple out­side the train guid­ing them­selves along the cat­walk by the light of their cell­phones. These riders had de­cided to take their chances in the tun­nel rather than fol­low Metro’s stan­dard pro­ce­dure and await res­cue.

What­ever you think about the ob­vi­ous haz­ards of this mutiny, it turned out that the es­cap­ing pas­sen­gers did fine. But with them wan­der­ing in the tun­nel, it was clear to Cur­ley that his train would need to be aban­doned. By the time he re­turned from check­ing the brakes, res­cuers from L’En­fant Plaza al­ready had be­gun the full evac­u­a­tion af­ter the power had been brought down com­pletely.

The tes­ti­mony from Cur­ley and oth­ers in­di­cates that through­out the emer­gency, he was work­ing with two kinds of in­for­ma­tion: bad and none.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors would ask him if, un­der the dire cir­cum­stances he con­fronted, he had thought about break­ing Metro’s rules to move for­ward with the res­cue.

“I had thought about that,” he said, “but I didn’t.”

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion isn’t over. There are gaps and con­flicts in the tes­ti­mony. But the ev­i­dence is strong that Metro’s safety pro­ce­dures are in­ad­e­quate to pro­tect riders. Dr. Grid­lock also ap­pears Thurs­day in Lo­cal Liv­ing. Com­ments and ques­tions are welcome and may be used in a col­umn, along with the writer’s name and home com­mu­nity. Write Dr. Grid­lock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or e-mail dr­grid­lock@wash­post.com.

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