Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

WMATA trains sometimes leave a dazzling flash of light (video)

October 5, 2011 - 09:07 AM
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Yes, Metro trains glow. (Photo: YouTube/RomanticLinguaPhilia)

You're standing on a Metro platform and idly watching a train depart. The vehicle picks up speed and is about to roar out of view when whoosh — a sharp and dazzling display of light bursts forth from the tracks. What is this mysterious flash of light?

The light is called arcing and is, according to WMATA spokesperson Dan Stessel, rather common for any train system that relies on third-rail power. Here's a video showcasing what I'm talking about that a Metro rider shot and uploaded online in the last week:

Just as the train is leaving the platform, a shower of blue, incredibly bright light flashes forward right before the WMATA train disappears. The Metro rider in question alleged that these sparks constitute an issue going back 10 years for WMATA. "How much vision has been lost meanwhile from accidentally glancing at this arc-welder worthy flash bored while waiting for trains??" the rider asked in the comments under the uploaded video. " And has my dear camera suffered?"

Was this flash actually dangerous? I asked Stessel to get WMATA's take.

"There will always be some electrical activity when moving metal rubs up against a third rail carrying 750 volts," Stessel noted in an e-mail exchange.

The WMATA spokesperson emphasized that these sparks do not pose a safety hazard to customers. The YouTube video makes the sparks look brighter than they are in life, according to Stessel, and they are "generally small, momentary, and some distance away." He pointed to similar displays that occur in the transit systems of New York, Boston, and Los Angeles, and shared video evidence of similar flashes.

We shouldn't be scared of these flashes, then, as the one initial WMATA rider was, so much as embrace them. These flashes of light remind me of the more epic dimensions that trains once occupied in our cultural memory. They suggest the idea that trains contain power, that there's electricity inherent in such vast subterranean forms of transportation and that there's a glow in the wake of such intensity. Those notions are, perhaps, far more grandiose than our Metro system warrants ... but I still like the thought.

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