Policy

Systemic Failures Cited in Deadly Smoke Incident on D.C. Metro Train

Agency sent passenger trains full of commuters into smoke-filled tunnel in 2015

A Silver Line Metro train pulls into Capitol South Metro station on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Trains filled with rush-hour passengers were sent to investigate reports of smoke pouring from a Washington Metro subway car last year that killed a commuter inside a tunnel near one of the city's busiest stations, federal safety investigators concluded on Tuesday.  

The National Transportation Safety Board was sharply critical of the Washington-area transit agency's handling of the debacle in January 2015, the most serious in a string of mechanical, operational and managerial failures that have plagued the nation's second-busiest subway system.  

It cited a host of system-wide failures found by transportation investigators, prompting area House members to call the panel's findings “appalling” and warn that Metro shortcomings have left constituents “concerned, worried and frustrated.”  

Investigators also found that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority did not follow its own policy by halting all train service during the incident aboard a Yellow Line train at the L'Enfant Plaza station. Instead, 56 trains were in operation systemwide from the time smoke was reported until the incident was over, investigators reported.  

"It is particularly appalling to learn Metro’s response to reports of smoke was to send trains loaded with passengers into a tunnel to investigate," said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, a Democrat representing parts of Northern Virginia. "I am relieved such an outrageous practice is no longer in place, but the mere fact it once existed speaks to the level of indifference to safety that had permeated the agency."  

   

The report is the latest blow to the troubled transit agency as it struggles to update failing infrastructure and address constant delays. It also identified failures in ventilation systems, flawed communications and damaged cable connectors.  

Rep. John Delaney, D- Md., said in a statement he intends to implement a "top-to-bottom" overhaul of Metro's board of directors to ensure enhancements to Metro's safety precautions.  

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