Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

After the friction ring tunnel evacuation, bring on the WMATA damage control

December 21, 2011 - 12:40 PM
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(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

WMATA is ready to reassure the public after yesterday's little incident. A part of a Metro train's brake system fell off, and hundreds of people had to evacuate through a Metro tunnel. See videos here. Although no one was hurt, the descriptions don't make for good press. The incident even made international headlines.

In recent months, Metro has discussed at length how to respond to disasters — natural disasters like the hurricane and earthquake, commute-obliterating events like the October Clarendon suicide.

Yesterday Metro kicked into action fast, at least on its communications front in the bigger, abstract sense, if not on the ground. We received multiple updates throughout the early afternoon. By 3 p.m., Metro leadership held a press conference in which they revealed the problem lay with a 5000-series car, Blue Line car #406, and that Metro would all its 5000-series cars to make sure the problem isn't repeated. It's smart and necessary, at minimum, to make these gestures, especially given the broad confusion and chaos at the affected stations that the Post's Robert Thomson and others described.

Today Metro released another update and say the agency has reviewed how they handled the incident. They correctly diagnose the problem, the need for better communications with riders on the train and elsewhere as well as on radio. Staff continue to investigate why exactly yesterday's incident happened and say it's related to a "potential hub failure" and have removed 16 railcars similar to the one that lost its friction ring yesterday. General Manager Richard Sarles has interacted with the public at many recent Metro press events, debuting the Farragut Crossing virtual tunnel and celebrating escalator repairs, and continued to exercise what the transit agency likely hopes is a calm voice of credibility and stability. In today's press statement, Sarles offered the following words:

I want to thank the D.C. Fire Department for its leadership and recognize the outstanding job they did, both on incident command and on the safe evacuation of our passengers ... Our review this morning concluded that the methodical and deliberate plan that was developed with the highest safety precautions possible, combined with the exemplary work of fire, transit police and safety officials resulted in a safe and orderly evacuation in a reasonable time frame.

The reaction to what happened is likely going to continue to play out at more than a few Metro Board meetings to come. Yesterday proved a psychic blow to the confidence riders place in their system, I suspect, at least in the short term.

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