Train Safety: The Lessons of 9/11

Stay or Go?

In this era of terror mayhem it behooves us all to think through how we would react in a potentially lethal environment.

This past Monday afternoon a Washington, D.C., metrorail train stopped in a tunnel after an arcing incident occurred on the track.

The loaded train apparently remained stationary as heavy smoke poured into the cars.

One person died and dozens were injured, some critically.

Firefighters reached the train after 40 minutes.


Command and No Control

News reports suggest that the train operator was in communication with Metrorail’s command center as well as the manager at the closest station.

While no one knows what the command center said it has been reported that the station manager would not allow the train to return.

One can imagine the quality and clarity of that three-way communication loop where those trying to make decisions are the farthest from the event.

Isn’t a train loaded with passengers and filling with smoke analogous to an aircraft or ship under similar conditions?

In those cases it is the “captain” who is immediately responsible for passenger safety.  They are closest to the emergency, have the most information and make the decisions.

Imagine a flight crew asking for permission (and being denied) to return to an airport with heavy smoke in the cabin.

Utterly ridiculous.

Failed Communication

The National Transportation Safety Board will presumably sort out the details but it proves that the current system is not capable of making a relatively timely decision about whether or not to move an operable train to the nearest station for evacuation even if it is on fire.

Failing that, nor can they apparently confirm that third rail power is down in the area as DC Fire and EMS personnel are reported to have waited 20 minutes at the closest station for confirmation.

If the train is operable and the track is clear why not move immediately to a station so that passengers can be quickly evacuated and the fire controlled?

If it is not operable and conditions are deteriorating, evacuate.

Speaking of failed communication, any metrorail rider knows how the train P.A. systems either do not work or the volume is adjusted so low that nary a word of the announcement can be either deciphered or even heard.

Imagine being in an emergency under such conditions.

In addition, train operators often announce a departure from, or arrival at, the wrong station, sometimes even on the wrong line.  Passengers just role their eyes if they know or look confused (and panicky) if they don’t.

World Trade Center Two


Tower two was struck 16 minutes after tower one but collapsed first and after only 57 minutes.

The tower two evacuation was largely successful because occupants relied on their instincts.

They saw tower one being hit and simply decided to leave despite the fact that a P.A. announcement advised otherwise.

In fact, studies show that listening to P.A. announcements actually delayed a successful evacuation.

In addition, sticking around to find out more information increased the evacuation delay by 1.5 to 2.6 times.

Simply put, if you hung around to find out what the experts had to say you were risking your life.

If you are unable to breath it may not be time to leave but it damn sure is time to fully investigate ALL options whatever the voice of authority is saying.

A Crucial Caveat

9/11 studies also showed that building occupants were largely clueless about what to do in an emergency.

If you are going to walk to safety from a metrorail car you better bone up on:

-How to exit the car safely

-Knowing the location of the third rail

-Staying on the raised safety walk as you move to the nearest station.

See you in the tunnel.




  • Dennis says:


    Your observations concerning the Metro fire and mass casualty incident this past Monday are spot on. I have more than just a fleeting interest as I have used the Yellow Line hundreds of times this past several years and continue to ride on a daily basis.

    Just a few observations from my point of view. First, I agree with your assessment that having Metro OCC or a nearby station “manage” an emergency on a train in a tunnel is ludicrious to the extreme. This is not the first time a train operator has ordered passengers to stay on the train during a hazardous situation. I realize the potential dangers of evacuating a train, but if I had the choice between being gassed on the train or walking 800 feet to a station, see you later! After a short conversation with the operator, I would head out the back door assisting anybody who needed evacuation. I think any first responder would likewise take this initative. Another observation is the only thing that separated this incident from being a mass fatality incident is two hours. If the fire had occured at 5:00 pm rather than 3:00 pm, the train would be at crush load and several hundred passengers would have been at risk of smoke inhaltion injuries.

    Metro must revisit its emergency management plans and procedures in relation to train evacuation, which continue to put the riding public at high risk of injury and death. In the meantime, I will continue my daily commute with no expectations that Metro has even a coherent and comprehensive plan for train emergencies.


  • Victoria Huckenpahler says:

    Thanks for bringing this to our attention, Eric, and I so agree. Speaking of the difficulty of hearing announcements in the Metro, it would also help if the conductors spoke plain English!!
    Huck belongs to a writers’ group, one of whose members has taken an admin. job with Metro. According to him, things there are even worse than the general public knows. Beware, all riders!

  • Russ Preble says:

    I am getting a bit tired of everybody geting up in arms over Metro’s lack of performance. I have been advocating to members of the Metro Board, PG county staff and Senator Mikulski’s staff that what is needed is a top to bottom managerial audit of the entire Metro Agency. Safety, communications, training-operator and maintenance, financial, computer systems, public relations, emergency procedures. It seems a single problem gets attention, then is forgotten.
    What is needed is an outside look at the entire agency.

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