Feds order inspections of train tunnel ventilation systems

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal transit officials said Wednesday they are ordering the inspection of ventilation systems in train tunnels nationwide after an electrical malfunction filled a train inside a Washington tunnel with smoke, leading to a passenger's death.

The Department of Transportation's Federal Transit Administration will require an audit at 25 public rail systems that have tunnels. That includes transit systems in major cities including New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and Atlanta. The audits have to be completed and submitted by Aug. 31.

The National Transportation Safety Board recommended a need for the audit in February, about a month after the Jan. 12 incident on Washington's subway system, which led to one woman's death and sent more than 80 people to area hospitals. Although the NTSB is still investigating the incident, it has said ventilation fans, which are supposed to be able to push smoke out of tunnels and pump in fresh air, were part of the problem.

The first fan activated after the incident pulled smoke toward the train, the NTSB said in February, and two of four fans that could have drawn smoke away from the train were either broken before the incident or stopped working during it. The train operator also did not immediately shut off the train's own ventilation system, which began pulling smoke into the cars, the NTSB said.

The Federal Transit Administration developed a checklist to help with the ventilation system audits. The audits will include an assessment of the emergency procedures for incidents involving fire and smoke as well as training for those events.

Also on Wednesday, the FTA released a report on the safety culture at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, the agency responsible for the January incident involving the smoke-filled train. The report found the agency has failed to execute some of its own operating rules and procedures. It directed the agency, which oversees both trains and buses, to address 78 issues including problems with staffing, testing and training.

FTA Acting Administrator Therese McMillan said at a press conference that the agency has made improvements since a 2009 crash that killed nine people. Still, the agency "has to do better to improve its safety performance," she said. McMillan said the agency would set the timeline for correcting its own problems; she would not say when she hoped they would be completed.

The agency's interim general manager, Jack Requa, said in a statement that the agency remains "committed to creating an even safer system." The agency's rail system, which has stations in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, is the second-busiest in the nation with an average weekday ridership of over 750,000.


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