Crowded platforms — some dangerously so — are an all-too-common sight on Metro, say riders.
Federal officials are investigating a complaint about potentially dangerous platform crowding in the Metrorail system, an early test of their new relationship with the D.C. region’s transit authority after assuming direct safety oversight of Metro in October.
“Metro is so close to a deadly incident,” said the complaint filed with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) by a Metro rider on Nov. 10 after a disabled train offloaded passengers onto a crowded platform at Gallery Place-Chinatown station during morning rush hour. The FTA declined to release the rider’s name, citing privacy rules.
“Metro station employees and loudspeakers did nothing to clear the platform, and it was extremely dangerous and scary,” the complaint said. “If anyone had panicked, people would have been crushed to death and pushed onto the rails…it was nearly impossible to move.”
The complaint spurred officials inside the FTA’s new WMATA safety oversight office to contact Metro officials seeking answers.
Feds push for answers to platform crowding
In emails obtained by WAMU 88.5, the federal agency’s lead accident investigator, George Good, asked Metro personnel whether they responded to the crowding complaint, reviewed similar conditions throughout the rail systems, and required any operational actions.
“What operational actions does WMATA take in this type of situation?” Good asked.
In an email response sent Nov. 20, Manny Kennerly, Metro’s deputy chief of rail and facilities safety, promised the incident would be reviewed and the FTA would receive a report.
“In addition, identifying those stations that present challenging egress issues due to current station rehab construction efforts and strategies if a train offload occurs during peak hours,” Kennerly said. “We are scheduled to meet [Nov. 24] and you are more than welcomed to attend.”
Metro declined a request to interview Kennerly. A spokesman said “internal discussions” would happen before a response could “be generated to the FTA.”
The FTA also declined interview requests, but a spokeswoman issued a statement confirming the investigation.
“FTA has been communicating with WMATA about the incident, and we are in the process of determining if WMATA has the appropriate procedures in place for addressing station overcrowding, as well as incidents onboard trains that may lead to station overcrowding,” the statement said.
Packed platforms have become a common complaint of commuters as rail service has steadily deteriorated. Delays caused by track or railcar problems have a cascading effect, especially if a packed train is forced to offload its passengers onto an already crowded platform.
When Metro on-scene personnel determine a station is at an unsafe capacity, they often close the station or hold commuters at fare gates until platforms have a chance to clear once trains start moving again.
But even under normal operating conditions, crowding issues at the busiest, downtown D.C. rail stations have been known to Metro planners since the middle of last decade, and are used to support the argument for additional investment sooner rather than later in Metro’s Momentum program — a $6 billion wish list of unfunded projects to expand station capacity with wider platforms and mezzanines and new entrances and pedestrian walkways.
A 2008 Metro study identified Gallery Place-Chinatown among seven stations that already had crowding issues. Public documents released as part of the Momentum proposal named six stations “that would have inadequate ‘vertical circulation’ (stairs and escalators) by 2014: Farragut North, Farragut West, L’Enfant Plaza, Metro Center, Shady Grove and Union Station.”
Giving passengers direction
In interviews Monday morning, commuters said platform crowding is getting worse.
“People get too close to the trains as they come in. There is a lot of overcrowding going on around here,” said Oscar Hines as a Red Line train arrived at the Gallery Place-Chinatown platform.
“If there was any kind of incident I think it definitely would be very dangerous,” said Manny Mekonen.
Beverly Johnson, another Red Line commuter, vented as a second consecutive train so crowded that she could not board arrived.
“It’s extremely dangerous. It’s too many people. I don’t understand why they don’t run 8-car trains all the time. It’s too crowded. Sooner or later something is going to happen where someone is going to get bumped off and hit by a train,” she said.
Metro must implement system-wide procedures to handle routine crowding, according to rail safety expert Lawrence Mann, who co-authored the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970.
“This would necessitate having more police on the scene,” Mann said. “Passengers get unruly when they don’t have free access to what they want.”
“Once passengers are aware this is a new policy, then they will go with it. Rather than having injuries, this is one way to deal with crowding," he adds.
Mann said measures employing additional Metro personnel is a more practical solution than long-term projects to widen platforms and mezzanines that are years from being realized.