Friday, December 11, 2009

Moving ... Backwards?

From reader CS:

Recently, I was coming home from the city on my usual Orange Line trip to Vienna. We were still underground, between stations, when the train came to a halt. Nothing unusual there, especially in the new era of manual control. We sat for a spell, then the operator released the brakes with their familiar "whoosh," and ...

...we started moving backwards!

Not the common coast-backwards-a-little-bit-on-a-hill-before-the-propulsion-kicks-in kind of backwards, but powered backward travel.

The operator quickly stopped the train (at least the brakes worked!) and tried again several times, all with the same result. Clearly unnerved, she came on the PA system and said something about "going backward!"

I suspect this was unintentional, and that she had keyed the mike while talking to central control about the problem.

As it happened, there was a Metro technician on board at the same time, and she called out to him over the PA, with some urgency, to quickly come to the operator's cab.

In fairly short order, the technician showed up, running down the aisle, and entered the cab. (I watched all this from my vantage point at the front of the first car.)

The technician and the operator engaged in some back-and-forth (couldn't make out what was said), with him evidently instructing her on some technique for dealing with the problem.

When he finished, the operator gave a loud and grateful, "Thanks!" (easily heard in the passenger compartment), and she was then able to get the train moving in the right direction again. We traveled without incident to Vienna.

But as was the operator, I was a bit unnerved, too:

-- Metro trains can go backwards without the train operator wanting them to?!

-- And if so, train operators themselves don't know the secret solution, without having to depend on a "fairy train-father" who just happened to be aboard at the time?

It's another example of why Metro isn't exactly inspiring confidence these days.

Also by CS:
Rules don't apply
Vienna's creepy tower
Doors Closing

Other items:
Mikulski tears Metro a new WMATAhole (Mikulski)
Management shake up in the works? (WaPo)
Federal oversight questioned (Examiner)
China has this, we have WMATA (BBC)

Photo: skewgee


Anonymous said...

That is some scary sh*t.

Anonymous said...

And instead of immediately taking this operator out of for remedial training, Metro allowed her to finish her shift and crash her train into another one in the yard.

Anonymous said...

Chine has this, we have WMATA???
Yeah, sure! I bet in the Chinese system there are guards with batons and teasers to make sure no idiot sticks his foot in the way of closing doors to make sure the rest of his party makes the train.
I bet they also have the option of beating up any unruly kid who decides to make their system a playground.
Any homeless hanging around the stations peeing? No problem. Jail is just a phone call away.
The train is making too much noise around your neighborhood? Shut your trap, stupid. And don't bother me with all that environmental impact bull crap either.

Ed said...

That's why I love being in the front car. You get to overhear lots of savoury things coming from the operator's cab. I had one such instance last year.

Anonymous said...

Scary sh*t indeed. What if the fairy-train father wasn't around?

Anyone notice the new ads on Orange line trains telling you to join the group who believes in safety first? Has a pic of a lovely lady with a beautiful happy smile. It's an add for metro union jobs.

TimK said...

Nothing scary about this at all.

First of all, can the train go backwards at all, ever? Yes, it's done by switching the propulsion from moving the train forward to moving it backward.

Can that switching mechanism ever malfunction? Of course it can; everything can malfunction.

This is a very unusual fault, and I would not expect WMATA to waste scarce training resources training operators on how to correct it. Had the technician not been on the train, the operator might have been able to get guidance from Control, or else she might have had to wait for a technician to arrive.

(I've been a subway train operator...not in DC, though.)

Anonymous said...

@TimK: Thanks.

Seriously people, how the hell is this either surprising (that trains can go backwards... of course they can) or that something might malfunction? And what would the operator do if there were a problem and no "technician fairy"? Call the f-ing control room and figure out what to do! When something goes wrong at your job do you just sit there and wring your hands and have a hissy fit or do you call the IT guy?

Anonymous said...

Awhile back, there was a malady afflicting Boeing 737s called "uncommanded hard-over," in which, without command, the plane basically rolled over on its back during flight and, typically, crashed. The key notion was "uncommanded." Can planes roll over? Yes. Is it a problem when they do it when you don't want them to? Certainly. So it is with the Metro trains. No surprise they can go backwards, but you'd rather not have them do it when you're not planning for it.

Anonymous said...

"When something goes wrong at your job do you just sit there and wring your hands and have a hissy fit or do you call the IT guy?"

I call the IT guy, and he tells me to reboot the computer. Typically, that does not fix the problem or recover my lost data. Then I have a hissy fit. Sadly, this is an accepted user support model for IT "customers." It is not an acceptable model for the running of a train system that kills people when things go wrong. What is this year's death count so far?

John Catoe said...

Note to self: include "unexpected reverse mode" chapter in next operator training course materials.

Anonymous said...

Hey techie-aware former train drivers and sundry - that "scary sh*t" is not that the train can go backwards. What is scary is that the train was running backwards.. note not "coasting"... and the operator did not know what to do!

It is not the train able to go backwards that scares me. The cars alone show they can be driven from either end. It is the ignorance/lack of understanding of what the operator was doing.. with my LIFE hanging in the balance.

Is Santa reading this blog? Tell me Santa is reading this blog...

Santa said...

This is Santa. I do read this blog, but mietro is so screwed up, not even me and all the reindeer can do anything about it. Catoe, the entire board and all those rude drivers/employees will be getting lumps of coal.
ho ho ho

TimK said...

@Anonymous 12/11: Do you honestly think operators can be trained to deal with absolutely everything that can go wrong with a train? If so, then you obviously have no idea how complex a piece of machinery a train is and how many things can go wrong.

Any sensible transit agency/company makes reasonable choices as to what operators need to be trained to deal with. Typically these choices will involve consideration of how likely a fault is to occur and what the consequences would be if it did.

Having a train run backwards "uncommanded" (good word, although the comparison with the 737 is hardly apt for reasons that should not need belaboring) is a very rare fault. What are the consequences of this fault? The operator makes a couple of attempts to correct the problem, and when she finds she can't correct it, she gets help while the train stands still. Why, again, would WMATA waste scarce training resources on an unlikely problem like this when its consequences are so benign?

I'm still looking for the "OMG SCARY" part. (And I'll be looking for a while, because it ain't there.)

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