(Washington, DC — January 19, 2015) – Senior managers for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) – commonly known as Metro – uncorked the champagne this morning and drank a toast to success.
The reason? No passenger deaths in the past week.
The story was not the same last Monday, when “an electrical arcing event” – the words of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) – at the L’Enfant Plaza station created thick, choking smoke and stranded hundreds on a train stuck in the tunnels.
Many apparently thought that Metro had once again allowed smoking within the transit system – there were unconfirmed reports that some passengers and employees were lighting up cigarettes and cigars as the events unfolded – but these reports could not be substantiated at press time.
Passengers were urged to sit tight in the dead train and wait for emergency responders to arrive. The problem: it took emergency responders more than 30 minutes to arrive, so many passengers chose to self-evacuate against the orders of Metro employees.
For many, it was déjà vu all over again, as the self-evacuation brought back memories of Metro incidents on July 6, 2012 (a “heat kink” derailed a Green Line train, leaving passengers stranded in an air-conditionless train on a 99 day), and January 30, 2013 (two Green Line trains near the Anacostia and Navy Yard stations lost power, stranding 2,000 passengers).
When all was said and done, over 80 people suffered injuries including smoke inhalation, respiratory distress, bruises, scrapes, disrupted Internet access, and in one case, death.
This was just the latest incident in a string of “mishaps” over the past two decades.
Metro has attempted to tout a “culture of safety” under the watchful eye of Metro General Manager Richard Sarles – serving from 2010 up until just two weeks ago. Sarles was brought in after the June 22, 2009, incident where eight passengers and one employee were needlessly killed near the Fort Totten station.
Now it appears that the “culture of safety” is similar to a throat culture: both leave you gagging.
Metro’s “culture of safety” is now being compared to the same culture supposedly in effect at NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration]. One only has to say the words “Challenger” or “Columbia” to get an idea of how non-existent this “culture” really is.
Sarles, in his farewell address two weeks ago, told Metro’s Board of Directors that “safety is top of mind for all employees.” After this latest incident, a spokesman for a member of the Board was asked if their boss used the Metro regularly.
“Hell, no!” said the spokesman, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They don’t take the Metro, and neither do I. It’s a deathtrap!”
For regular Metro riders, there was a feeling that years and years of steep fare increases should have prevented such an incident. The NTSB investigated the fare increases just last February.
“I paid for this near-death experience?!” asked an affected passenger, speaking on condition of anonymity. “When you’re on Death Row, the State pays you to have the experience, not the other way around!”
Others criticized Metro using its money to pay off its upper management and focus on the recent opening of the Silver Line.
“Instead of opening new subway lines, they should first fix the existing subway lines,” said a Metro rider, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But I guess that’s too much to expect from an agency that runs itself like Congress – and has the same 9% approval rating.”
As far as Metro’s response to this latest tragedy – aside from emergency fare increases meant to offset the costs of fixing the burned, charred track, and paying the medical bills and death benefits to those affected – there is talk of adopting emergency kits similar to those used at Federal agencies for shelter-in-place contingencies. They would be handed out to every passenger coming through Metro’s turnstiles.
“The kits will have the same quality items found in the Federal emergency kits,” said a Metro spokesman, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They’ll include expired glow-sticks, expired potable water, flashlights with no batteries, brown paper lunch bags to help with breathing during another smoke-related emergency, and Band-Aids so old that their glue is now toxic. It’s the least we can do.”
When asked why passengers weren’t going to be supplied with oxygen canisters instead of brown paper bags, the spokesman got extremely agitated.
“Next you’ll be asking that we provide service at the level for which we’re charging,” responded the spokesman tersely, speaking on condition of anonymity.