Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

A 'fire' at Union Station Sunday night? Not quite

September 26, 2011 - 10:17 AM
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Lights everywhere outside Union Station on Sunday. (Photo: lockerz/tVS_557)

It's natural enough, I suppose, that my Monday morning should begin with Metro delays.

WMATA has contended with a lot of them over the last couple days, I'm afraid — and beyond scheduled track maintenance, the delays are often due to the forces of nature and disease. First came the news yesterday evening that Union Station was burning at around 6:30 p.m. and had to be evacuated. But what happened exactly? Some reports differed. A flare-up in the electrical room prompted the D.C. fire department's intervention and the station's evacuation, ultimately; the AP reports that 65 firefighters were on the scene, and that the fire was out and the station reopened by 7:30 p.m. and that Metro trains were running back through as per usual by 8 p.m.

But Metro spokesperson Dan Stessel said that the event wasn't even so much a fire as "arcing," which produces sparks and plenty of smoke and happened due to some water infiltration. "There was no fire per se," Stessel told me. The sparks naturally created concern and led to firefighters on the scene, but the idea that there were actual flames burning in Union Station was overstating what happened a bit. He emphasized that Metro was back up and running by 7:30 p.m. Sunday night.

And then this morning, another hazard hit the Metro — passenger sickness on the Green Line, causing single-tracking delays

I myself arrived at the Georgia Avenue-Petworth Metro station a few minutes after 8 a.m. and saw a train immediately arriving. Success, I thought. No waiting for trains, no problems.

Soon I boarded, and the train stayed in place. Everyone stood expectantly, newspapers in hand and iPod earbuds in sight. Within a minute or so, the train operator gave the announcement — there was a sick passenger on a train down the line and that we'd be waiting until that was resolved. We waited, idle and restless. A couple guys hopped off the train in frustration and boredom. Minutes passed. Another announcement indicated that they were still waiting for emergency medical personnel on the scene. WMATA reports that trains began single-tracking between Georgia Avenue and Shaw-Howard to account for the situation and wait for the emergency medical personnel.

"The customer on the train at U Street was unconscious," Stessel explained. The delay, according to Stessel, was no more than 15 minutes.

The number sounds right enough in retrospect, though a single minute of waiting on a Metro train can, naturally enough, seem like an eternity to riders waiting to get to work. Those panicked concerns echo through social media as riders tweet out their concerns. Emergency vehicles exacerbate that reaction. "They've evacuated Union station in D.C." tweeted Tom Stidman around 6:45 p.m. Sunday evening. "There are fire turcks [sic] and smoke coming from the Metro station. This has never happened before." Every transit delay causes people to grow hungry for information, for clarity, and often to project their own speculation and curiosity out to the world through comment and online.

By 8:40 a.m. this morning, Stessel tweeted: "No longer single tracking at U Street. Male passenger was removed from train by EMS."

Despite the maddening frustrations that Metro delays cause, I would point out that both of these issues are outside of WMATA control. A few sparks in an electrical room due to water? An unconscious passenger? These are elemental problems of society rather than WMATA problems. The fire department and WMATA, from what I could tell, handled them swiftly, promptly, and safely. As Stessel emphasized, any rider who falls unconscious would want to be handled by medical professionals. These delays are community delays, a consequence of living in a society. Sometimes we may be waiting on a platform or delayed because of it — but they're a natural dimension of caring for one another and conducting these actions with precision and safety.

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