- The Washington Times - Friday, June 9, 2000

Another fire on Metrorail's tracks Thursday has commuters and board members expressing concern about the transit system's safety procedures.

It was the latest in a series of problems small rail fires, reports of trains being sent into tunnel fires as probes, and a train rolling away without power and brakes.

Thursday's fire on the Blue Line outside the Arlington Cemetery station was the third consecutive day that fire crews have been called out on reports of "smoke in the tunnel."

Cheryl Johnson, a spokeswoman for Metro, said the fire occurred at 5:01 p.m. when employees noticed smoke coming from a wooden section of the tracks. Passengers in trains near the incident were evacuated and power was restored to the line at 5:53 p.m.

Some commuters are becoming alarmed.

Suzanne Taylor of Dover, Del., was getting ready to take her first ride on Metro when she found out about the recent incidents.

"Well, now I feel uneasy," she said while standing outside Foggy Bottom-GWU station. "I guess ignorance is bliss. Now I'm just scared to death."

Metro is investigating Thursday's incident, but Ms. Johnson said the fire may have been caused by electricity from the 750-volt third-rail that powers the trains, or simply warmer temperatures.

"There was a smoldering crosstie that caused the smoke it was not in the tunnel," Ms. Johnson said. "I know it's not unusual for the rail system to have crossties smolder."

On Wednesday, Montgomery County, Md., fire crews checked out an unfounded report of smoke in the tunnel near the Friendship Heights station, and on Tuesday, county firefighters responded to a debris fire near the White Flint station. Both resulted in lengthy delays for riders.

Metro board members conceded even before Thursday's incident that the transit agency is suffering an image problem that could affect riders' confidence in the 24-year-old system.

"It's a heightened awareness," said Chairman Gladys W. Mack. "The new policy certainly did shed some light [on the problems]."

Under the new policy, Metro stops subway trains when there is a report of a fire and immediately evacuates passengers. Also, Metro employees are no longer allowed to extinguish fires.

The changes were prompted by an April 20 fire on the Blue line between the Farragut West and Foggy Bottom-GWU stations, leaving 273 persons trapped in a train for more than two hours.

At a hearing before the D.C. Council last Friday, Metro officials said that after initial reports of the fire, they sent a train full of passengers toward the blaze to determine its seriousness.

General Manager Richard A. White said he is concerned about the string of incidents, because public perception about Metro safety is vital to its success.

"I think the effect [of all the coverage] is that we are under a heightened state of scrutiny," Mr. White said.

He added, however, that the mishaps should be looked at separately.

"Each incident that's occurred, you can't connect the dots they're all unique in nature," he said.

Metro Deputy Manager Charles Thomas said a May 26 incident in which a disabled train came close to going over an incline when mechanics tried to hook it to another nearby train to push it into the Dupont Circle station first reported in Thursday's Washington Times shows the incidents aren't necessarily related.

Unlike the April fire where the lack of policy may have been to blame, human error played more of a role in the "runaway" train incident, Mr. Thomas said.

"This issue kind of overlaps into a personnel issue," Mr. Thomas said. "This will not be rectified by a review of policies and procedures."

Metro board Vice Chairman Christopher Zimmerman said he saw firsthand the problems the transit system has, especially in the area of communications. On Wednesday, Mr. Zimmerman found himself stuck at the Friendship Heights station while firefighters investigated a report of smoke in the tunnel.

"You couldn't figure out what was being heard," he said.

Board members made their comments after Thursday's weekly meeting, in which Mr. White announced that weekly ridership on Metrorail had increased 7.4 percent since last year. He also said trains will run until 2 a.m. on the weekends as part of a yearlong pilot program.

Coincidentally, the Blue Line between the Capitol Heights and Addison Road stations will be part of a drill Saturday that will simulate an accident inside the tunnel, with about 20 "victims" involved.

Even those who were not inconvenienced by the Blue Line evacuation said they felt a little uneasy about the safety of Metro.

"I am just hoping they fix the problem so they don't put anyone in danger anymore," said Jenifer Bookman, 25, of the Rosslyn section of Arlington, as she stood outside the McPherson Square station Thursday afternoon. "We pay to ride the Metro. The least they can do its keep us safe."

Others said that, despite worries about safety, the transit system is their only option.

"I am concerned about what's happening, and I hope they're trying to resolve it, but I still have to take Metro," said Roger Miller, of Vienna, while waiting at the Farragut West station. "I still have to go to work."

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