Runaway train on Metro’s Red Line went unreported for weeks

After an empty runaway train on the Red Line went unreported to managers, Metro’s general manager is changing the rules on what incidents require an emergency response.

Back on March 26, a Metro train stopped 100 yards short of the Rhode Island Avenue station platform, and passengers waited 90 minutes before they were able to safely get off the train, according to an internal memo shared by Metro.

After the passengers were off the train, workers were beginning to decouple the cars when the train began moving at a speed less than 5 mph and rolled more than 130 feet before an employee was able to stop it by pulling a hand brake.

These details make up part of General Manager Paul Wiedefeld’s memo to staff advising them of the incident and the changes he is making to safety protocol.

While the initial mechanical problem that caused the train to stop short of the platform was reported to the managers inside the Rail Operations Command Center, Wiedefeld wrote that the fact that the train rolled down the track afterward was never reported to the ROCC or Metro’s Safety Department.

Therefore, it wasn’t reported by Metro to the Federal Transit Authority or the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission as required. Wiedefeld underlined part of the memo for emphasis.

The incident was discovered by WMATA safety employees while listening to audio recordings in the normal course of their post-incident review of the disabled train. Following confirmation of the discovery on April 8, WMATA’s SAFE department reported the incident to both WMSC and FTA,” he wrote.

“A runaway train is a serious safety event. It’s one of the highest level of required reports known as accidents,” said Max Smith with the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission.

The independent investigation into the rolling train has just begun, but Smith said WMSC has already identified that not all of the 109 passengers waited to safely be escorted off the train; some self-evacuated.

“One of the areas where the investigation is looking is at the emergency response, and whether an emergency response was called for in the appropriate timeframe, and whether the proper troubleshooting steps were taken, and whether people had the proper training to do those steps,” Smith said.

Beyond the lack of reporting, Wiedefeld’s memo does not detail the specific actions that employees should have taken during the runaway train incident; however, he wrote that during the initial period when the train became disabled short of the platform, “a number of failures occurred during the recovery process.”

The cause of the mechanical failure failed to trigger the appropriate internal notifications and incident response, wrote Wiedefeld, who said that communications between the ROCC and the field were “inadequate.”

Metro Transit Police were not notified and didn’t board the train to help, and though the train operator walked up and down the train to communicate the reason for the delay, “updates to passengers were not provided timely, contributing to decisions by two passengers to self-evacuate,” Wiedefeld wrote.

In response to the event, Wiedefeld said, rail operators will test to ensure proper coupling of cars and will review procedures for rolling events, such as the unintentional movement of any rail car by more than a foot. And going forward, staff from the Safety Department and the Office of Emergency Management will have a position inside the Rail Operations Command Center 24/7.

“In addition to continuing the changes underway at ROCC, we are lowering the threshold for emergencies to be defined as any train, bus or paratransit vehicle with passengers that cannot operate and assigning the responsibility of triggering emergency response to professional emergency management staff,” Wiedefeld wrote.

“Importantly, we are moving related incident management functions to the Safety Department and making them the lead internal authority to manage emergency incidents.”

As of Monday, any broken-down train, bus or MetroAccess vehicle will qualify as an incident worthy of emergency response, the memo said.

Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

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