Thursday, February 7, 2013

Metro's 24-car Frankentrain

UPDATE: Predictably, Dan Stessel denied this story to the City Paper.  Doesn't appear as if the reporter cared to press Dan for details of his side of the story. For example, why did it take over two hours to perform what should have been a routine train rescue? 

Remember that time when Metro took riders hostage?

No, not the Great Green Line Charlie Foxtrot of 2013. I'm talking about a few days earlier on Jan. 27 when Metro held 44 people for two hours in a dark, cold train on the Orange Line.

Metro chief spokesman Dan Stessel explained part of the story to the Examiner and said the delays were because Metro used an "abundance of caution."

"It was an extremely long delay, north of two hours for passengers who were on that train," Stessel told the Examiner. "The more important thing for us is that it was handled safely."

For them? Wow. Anyway.

It was not an abundance of caution, but rather an abundance of incompetence that caused the delays, says a Metro source. And not only did those riders pay with two hours of their lives, but we'll all pay for the damage done in the wake of Metro's "solution" to the problem.

Here's what happened, according to a source.

The 8-car train with passengers was heading toward New Carrollton when, between Cheverly and Landover, it suddenly lost all power and came to a stop.

Sadly, Metro loses power all the time, but there were some strange aspects to this power outage.

First of all, two earlier trains also experienced power problems after passing through the same area. Stessel confirmed this to the Examiner, telling the paper those trains made it to Landover and were taken out of service.

This pattern of power loss set off no alarms among Metro officials, and here's where things got interesting.

After the train got stuck outside Cheverly, the third rail checked out fine.  No outages. Full power.

But every single car was without power. The source said it's not uncommon for one car to lose power, but for all of them to be without power and to have the third rail functioning should have initiated some proactive thinking.

But instead of thinking, or checking the tracks, Metro sent another, empty train right through the same problem area toward the stranded train to "rescue" it. In the same location, that train also suddenly lost power and stopped.

Metro now had two stranded, powerless trains, and everyone was scratching their heads.

According to the source, the calls started going out to the superintendent, who was at home. The superintendent told a Metro supervisor at New Carrollton to get on another train and come at the two stranded ones from the opposite way. Unfortunately, the employee charged with this task was not qualified to rescue trains.

What did they do?

Probably in an attempt to remedy the situation in the fastest--not the most safe--way possible, they coupled the two disabled trains together, then attached the third train.

He'd assembled a behemoth, 24-car train.

Was it ingenuous thinking on the employee's part?

Unfortunately not.

According to the source, rescue trains should only pull another train of the same length or less. An eight-car train can pull another eight-car train, for example, but six should not pull eight.

In this case Metro had eight cars pulling 16 cars of dead weight. Quite a task.

The source said the strain created a "slinky" effect as the good train huffed and puffed to pull the rest of the dead cars. The train was constantly sputtering under the stress causing the dead cars to bang into one another then pull apart violently destroying or severely damaging many of the couplers, the mechanism the allows cars to lock together. It was enough force to sheer large bolts.

The source said it would take at least 16 man hours just to take off and replace one coupler. They didn't know how long it would take to repair the damaged ones, but they said it would be expensive.

"There were no qualified people on the scene the entire time," said the source.

The train finally limped to safety and the passengers were released.

It was later discovered, as Stessel said (sorta), that there was an obstruction of some kind on the tracks which had clipped off all of the trains' collector shoes, the parts of the train that contacts the third rail. There are two of those per car.

But during the entire episode, no one thought it was a good idea to check out the tracks.

"Losing power like that on a train should have been a huge red flag," the source said. "Nobody asked any questions. They were blindly following standard operating procedures."

The source, who's been at Metro a long time said "24 cars has to be a record."

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