Complaining about Metrorail has long been a popular pastime here in Washington, D.C. The aging system's slow but seemingly steady decline had certainly been the subject of scrutiny before the horrific 2009 Red Line crash that killed nine people, but it's come into sharper focus in the years since. Since WMATA General Manager Richard Sarles took over the transit agency in 2010, ensuring passenger safety has been goal number one, and an undeniably worthy one. D.C.-area residents have mostly been willing to put up with the jerky stop-and-starts of manual train control, months-long escalator repair projects, and epic track work-related weekend train delays that have been the result of WMATA's long-term plan to upgrade and ensure that nothing like what happened that awful day in June ever happens again.
WMATA's present and future reputation suffered a major setback on Wednesday night, after a fire near the Anacostia Metro station stranded multiple trains underground, without power, for several hours. Sarles, to his credit, has already issued a mass apology to riders, but details of the ordeal are just starting to come out today, and they are the stuff of nightmares. The excerpt below, from an account submitted to local websites Unsuck DC Metro and DCist, contains the kind of details that could be enough to make even the most stalwart mass transit loyalist to reconsider her commuting options. Bold emphasis ours:
I boarded my first train at Foggy Bottom around 4:45 p.m., transferred at L'Enfant Plaza without incident. Once I got on the platform at L'Enfant Plaza, the signs said to expect delays. I waited about 15 minutes for the train to come. By this time, the platform was absolutely packed with people. Everyone crammed into the train. We went one stop, and the train operator announced the train was going out of service, and everybody would have to get off at the next stop. This had apparently happened to two other trains as well, so the platform hardly had room for us to get off the train. It was pretty damn unsafe. The train operator kept announcing to board the next train on the opposite side of the track, and it would take us in the direction we were headed due to them single tracking around a track fire.
The next thing that happened, and I wish I had this recorded was—the station announcer came on the PA system and starting announcing, “At this time, the station manager KNOWS NOTHING, I repeat, the station manager KNOWS NOTHING.” This was very unsettling to the mob on the platform. Then a train arrived on the same side we just got off on, and announces it was going our direction. At the same time, the train came, the station manager was on the PA stating no trains were heading in our direction and they have no information on any trains going in our direction, so we should all exit the station and get a bus or a cab. That train left, I was nowhere close to getting on. There were three trains worth of pissed off people all pushing and shoving to get on it. I stayed out of the way. The next train came and announced it was going in our direction, as the station manager once again comes on the PA system saying no trains are heading in our direction—UNBELIEVABLE.
I got on that train, we went maybe a mile and the train went dark--all power was shut off. The train drifted along the tracks with a ghostly, eerie silence until it came to a powerless stop. One light came on in the car I was in. It was packed with probably a few hundred people. We were standing face to face, practically on top of one-another. The train operator said, he was not sure what happened and was calling into central. We had emergency battery power on, which had enough power to keep emergency lighting on but no air circulation.
The next two hours were spent in the dark on the train. An hour in, panic started to set in. In our car, one woman had passed out. We heard people pounding on windows in other cars, we heard glass breaking and people screaming. More than two hours in, folks in our car forced open the emergency door to get some air into the car. Some to actually exited and walked the tunnel. Mind you, we were in the dark somewhere under the Anacostia River. Inside the temperature was close to 90 degrees. Most people managed to get their coats off, and in some cases, even shirts came off, I was dripping with sweat, but tried to keep breathing and conserve my energy and keep calm. I did not talk much, and kept my eyes closed while standing face to face and body to body with the other sweaty passengers.
About two and a half hours, someone threw up in our car. The car also smelt of urine. I’m certain more than one person had pissed themselves. The car smelt rank, and the situation was getting out of control. Multiple emergency doors were forced open, and now passengers were wondering around in the train tunnels in the dark. The train operator came by our car, asked us to help him get the door closed and said not to open it again. He said several other doors were open and had to be closed. He had police and firemen with him. They were trying to round up everyone and get them back on the train before the fire department would give permissions to the power company to restore power to the third rail.
Once the train operator got all passengers back on train and all doors closed, the power came on. The train operator said we would be moving forward, but at a very slow pace, as there might be stray passengers wondering around in the tunnel.
They took a good 30 minutes to get everyone off who needed medical assistance. I got home close to 9 p.m. that night.
On a day when we're talking about why commuters so often choose to drive solo even when mass transit would serve them better, D.C.'s most recent Metro horror story serves as a blunt reminder. Intellectually, we know that driving is far more dangerous than bus or rail travel, but cities and the transit agencies that serve them face an uphill battle every time something like this happens.