- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 14, 2000

The Metro's board chairman yesterday said the transit authority will ease a new policy of shutting down subway trains whenever a wisp of smoke is detected, which has stalled commuters five times in the past eight days.

The most recent incident occurred yesterday on the Green Line, which was closed for about an hour at the West Hyattsville station when the brakes on a train started smoking.

"We are looking at a way to structure the response so we have some consistent response to some of these incidents that don't require the service to be shut down," said Metro board Chairman Gladys Mack, who represents D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams on the panel.

Commuters have expressed displeasure over the Metro board policy of stopping trains for reports of smoke, which was put into effect May 5. Four of the five disruptions in service have occurred during rush hour.

"Before you go and stop the Red Line, disrupting everyone's commute, please make sure you know there is an actual fire," said Peter Doran, a Metro rider at Union Station yesterday.

Three stations on the Red Line were closed for two hours during Monday evening's rush hour because of a small trash fire at the Dupont Circle station. Passengers filled the streets after buses became overcrowded and could not handle the crush of people.

Yesterday, the Prince George's County (Md.) Fire Department was called in about 11:15 a.m. to investigate the smoking train brakes at the West Hyattsville station. Passengers had to be bused between Prince George's Plaza and the Fort Totten stations. Service resumed about 12:15 p.m.

"The inconvenience [to passengers] is an issue we want to address," Mrs. Mack said. "This was an interim measure. We might change it once we fully review it. We are reviewing the implications of what has happened during the last week."

D.C. Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat and a Metro board member, said the policy needs to balance safety and convenience. "Nobody likes hours of being inconvenienced and nobody likes the idea of being stranded and trapped inside a train," he said. "It has to be a balancing act of those two objectives."

The board set the policy requiring that trains be stopped for reports of smoke after Metro officials said they had used a passenger-filled train as a probe during the April 20 tunnel fire at the Foggy Bottom station.

The small trash fires and smoking brakes that have shut down subway service in recent days had been handled previously by Metro workers without assistance from firefighters. Entire sections of the subway must be closed to let firefighters work on the tracks.

Mrs. Mack said Metro officials will meet today with the fire chiefs from the District, Maryland and Virginia to discuss ways to prevent passengers from being placed in danger while keeping the trains moving.

She said she will rely on recommendations made by the fire chiefs and Metro's staff to decide how to handle the tunnel fires. "I am not an expert in this area," Mrs. Mack said. "What is clear to me is we need a variety of responses."

Metro employees have complained over the past week that the policy amounts to "overkill" and is unnecessary when common sense is used.

"It makes sense to change it before the ridership declines. Last [Monday] night, the people were very mad," said a Metro employee who has put out several minor fires in the tunnels. "[Metro officials] should take a minute to investigate before panicking."

Mrs. Mack defended the policy she set because she felt the existing policies were not effective. "We felt we had a gap and we need to apply the actions across the board. What the staff is doing now is structuring the response so we get a balance between safety and convenience of the passengers and employees," she said.

Small fires are common in subway tunnels, where the 750 volts of electricity in the third rail that power the trains can ignite nearly anything that touches it. Trains sometime emit smoke from overheated electrical equipment or malfunctioning brakes.

Chuck Stanford, Metro's chief engineer, who has worked on subways in New York and Philadelphia, said all electric rail lines experience fires along the tracks because of the high voltage, wet areas and combustible debris. He said that in New York, they had huge fires in the tunnels caused by mounds of trash that collect along the track.

Mr. Stanford said Metro and other electrified railways also have problems with third-rail insulators catching fire or exploding.

At Metro, the insulators are located every 10 feet of track and are designed to keep the third rail from touching the ground.

Mr. Stanford said Metro has porcelain and fiberglass insulators, noting that the fiberglass ones can catch fire when minerals from water collect on them and a spark ignites them.

Fiberglass insulators in wet areas are being removed and replaced with porcelain ones, he added.

An insulator fire "is not a big fire," he said.

"You can get it to burn, but it won't support combustion on its own," Mr. Stanford said. "It is the same thing with a cable when it shorts out. It will go out when you remove the power."

Mike Healy, spokesman for the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) in the San Francisco area, said its policy is similar to Metro's old policy, in which workers try to put out fires and then call the fire department if they fail.

Metro is patterned on the BART system, which is two years older and is about the same size.

"If it is a real fire where you see smoke and flames, we would immediately call the fire department and we shut down that portion of the line," Mr. Healy said. "In most cases, we take care of it."

• Cristin Kellogg contributed to this report.

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