WMATA tunnel incident (and implications for agency leadership)
Also see "St. Louis regional transit planning process as a model for what needs to be done in the DC Metropolitan region" from 2009.
In response to a piece about the incident earlier in the week as discussed in the City Paper, here is my response:
The 1000 series car didn't create the smoke and so is nonmaterial/coincidental. The issue is (electrical) fire and smoke.
Smoke inhalation is dangerous. People can and in this case, did, die from it. Therefore, standard operating procedure should be to not leave a train and its passengers sitting in a tunnel for any significant length of time when the tunnel is filled with smoke.
If you leave people in a train tunnel where there is a great deal of smoke, their ability to breathe will be affected. So you either back up or you let out the riders onto the tracks so they can walk out of and evade the area of the incident. Neither course of action occurred in a timely manner.
You don't really need a big NTSB investigation to draw the right conclusions on what should have happened ... and the NTSB investigation will make 6/7 conclusions:
(1) it's bad for riders to be in a position where they are forced to breathe in and inhale smoke.
(2) therefore, it's bad to leave a train sitting in a tunnel filled with smoke.
(3) WMATA overarching train operations leadership failed to give proper instructions to the train operator to remove the train and/or passengers from this dangerous situation.
(4) it would have required acting without orders/against instructions, but the train operator could have taken his own initiative to move the train backwards out of the tunnel (e.g., see #1).
(5) baring that, the train operator could have gone through the train and opened doors so riders could leave the car to walk out of the tunnel to safety (e.g., see #1)
(6) the fire department did not respond and act in a timely and expeditious matter
(7) WMATA operations personnel and management lack the initiative and ability to respond to and deal with immediate crisis in a manner which enhances safety and reduces the severity of problems and WMATA should deal with this from a process redesign and training standpoint.
A 1979 NTSB report on a train fire in the Transbay Tunnel of the BART system in San Francisco has a few conclusions: (1) the failure of BART to quickly coordinate with the local fire departments; (2) not following its emergency plans; (3) and that "The cause of the fatality and injuries was the inhalation of smoke and toxic fumes..."
TWO OF THE RECOMMENDATIONS FROM THIS 35 YEAR OLD REPORT:
"Revise emergency procedures to clarify the necessity of unloading the passengers immediately from a stopped burning train in the Transbay Tunnel and other long tunnel locations"
"Revise Transbay Tube emergency fan and damper procedures to prevent smoke from engulfing an entire train..."
For what it's worth, my point #7 is key. That's why incidents such as this continue to occur.
For what it's worth/2, NBC4 ("Metro Appoints Jack Requa as New Interim General Manager") and other outlets list potential replacements for Richard Sarles, who is stepping down as the head of the agency.
This week's incident is an example of why people highly knowledgeable in transit/transit operations should lead the agency, which ought to ding Allen Lew as potential leader of the agency, and probably should disqualify Rob Troup, currently Deputy General Manager of Operations, since the Metrorail division continues to demonstrate significant operational problems. Although since Mr. Troup has only been with the agency for four years, maybe he can argue he is the right person to right the ship.