The Jan. 12 Yellow Line incident damaged the electrified third rail near L'Enfant Plaza.
The Jan. 12 Yellow Line incident damaged the electrified third rail near L'Enfant Plaza.

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On Feb. 11, regional government and transportation officials gathered in the third-floor board room of 777 North Capitol St. NE for a presentation from the National Transportation Safety Board. The subject was the deadly incident a month earlier, on Jan. 12, that had filled a Yellow Line Metro train with smoke and left one passenger dead and sent more than 80 to the hospital. The NTSB was still investigating the causes of the incident, but Acting NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart briefed members of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments on a few issues that had already been discovered—most alarmingly, that the ventilation fans in the Metro tunnel were turned to the wrong setting, causing them to pull smoke toward the passengers trapped in the train.

That meeting ran from noon to 2 p.m. While the representatives of the NTSB and MWCOG were discussing the safety shortcomings that led to the incident, smoke filled another Metro tunnel.

“On February 11, 2015, at approximately 1:39 p.m. ET, the operator of a Washington Metro Area Transit Authority Orange Line train, traveling from Court House Station to Rosslyn Station, reported smoke in the tunnel as it approached Rosslyn,” the NTSB reported in a statement yesterday. The agency is now investigating that smoke incident as part of its broader investigation into the Jan. 12 incident. WAMU’s Martin Di Caro first reported the NTSB investigation into the Feb. 11 situation.

According to the NTSB, the operator of the Orange Line train reversed direction and moved the train back to Court House. The smoke was cleared, and normal service resumed an hour later. No injuries were reported.

As if we needed a further reminder of the regularity of the malfunctions that lead to smoke in the Metro system, this morning brought another instance of smoke in a Metro tunnel, this time between Bethesda and Medical Center on the Red Line. Metro says it has removed the arcing insulator that caused the problem, and that normal service has returned after the incident prompted earlier single-tracking. An arcing insulator, which causes sparking or smoking on the electrified third rail, is believed to be the cause of the Jan. 12 incident.

These malfunctions are all too common. According to a 2013 Metro report, “arcing insulators occur about twice a month when electrical current arcs because an insulator fails to buffer it, thereby generating smoke.” The number of smoke or fire incidents on Metro tracks has only increased since then, rising from 86 in 2013 to 104 last year.

Metro is in the process of replacing its aging insulators, as well as its aging railcars. The first 7000-series railcars are scheduled to debut a week from today, although their rollout will be gradual. They’ll eventually begin to replace the outdated 1000-series cars that have been used since Metro started running in 1976. In its report after the 2009 Red Line crash that killed nine people, the NTSB warned Metro to stop using the 1000-series cars because they were unsafe in a crash situation. Six years later, they still haven’t begun to be replaced.

Updating Metro’s equipment, of course, requires money. In the budget she proposed last week, Mayor Muriel Bowser committed to funding that meets Metro’s request for the District’s contribution to the system, but stopped short of pledging the additional funds needed to purchase the full desired stock of 7000-series cars. And Bowser’s the cooperative one: The other Metro jurisdictions, particularly Maryland under new Governor Larry Hogan, have shown a reluctance to commit the funds needed to keep Metro running safely, regularly, and without substantial fare hikes.

Today’s incident—and Jan. 12’s, and Feb. 11’s—are good reminders of what happens when a region fails to fund adequately a public-transit system on which it heavily relies.

Photo via NTSB