Preliminary Report: 5/31/18 – WMATA Red Line Service Suspension Due to Arcing Insulator

Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) Red Line train service was suspended between Farragut North and Gallery Place on Thursday, May 31 from approximately 10:15 a.m. until 10:48 a.m. after a train operator reported seeing fire on the trackbed.

At 10:09 a.m., the operator of 6-car Train 153 (T-153) en route from Metro Center to Farragut North in the direction of Shady Grove stopped approximately 2,100 feet outside of Metro Center and reported seeing a fire on the roadway. The train operator then requested permission to utilize a fire extinguisher to put it out. Upon hearing the report, the Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC) Rail Traffic Controller (RTC) called for several rail supervisors, instructing them to head towards the location of the reported fire.

The operator of T-153 was instructed at 10:10 a.m. to shut off the environmental (EV) system on the train—HVAC—and then instructed to reverse ends on the train. This would allow the operator to move the train back towards Metro Center.

WMATA ROCC suspended Red Line service at 10:15 a.m. and began holding trains in preparation to use Gallery Place and Farragut North as temporary terminals. Trains would offload and reverse back in the directions they came from. None would be allowed to pass between Farragut North and Metro Center.

At 10:15 a.m., the operator of T-153 reported to the ROCC that he had reversed ends on the train, and that the fire was now visible from the Glenmont-side operators cab, approximately five feet away. The operator requested to use a fire extinguisher to put out the fire, but was instructed by the ROCC to reverse ends again to the Shady Grove-side operating cab.

As the operator of T-153 was walking through the train, he received a report from a customer that a person had exited the train. Two minutes later at 10:21 a.m., the operator was instructed to consolidate passengers on the train into the lead car, which was the furthest from the reported track fire. The ROCC RTC further instructed the operator to perform a ground walkaround [1] of the train. The operator would be unable to make announcements to passengers on the train while on the ground.

The DC Fire/EMS command post with Battalion Chief 6 was set up outside Metro Center by 10:23 a.m., and WMATA Emergency Response Team (ERT) personnel arrived at Metro Center at 10:26 a.m., 17 minutes after the initial incident report.

At approximately the same time, the operator of T-153 finished their ground walkaround, saw no passengers on the roadway that had exited the train, and was returning to the lead (Shady Grove) car of the train. The operator reported that he saw “light smoke” while performing the ground walkaround.

WMATA ERT was granted permission to walk on the roadway towards the reported location of the fire, 1,600 feet outbound of Metro Center (A2 019+00) at 10:27 a.m., and the ROCC instructed the T-153 operator to apply a handbrake to the lead car of the train in preparation to de-energize the third rail in the incident area.

At 10:32 a.m., T-153’s operator reported that a handbrake had been applied to the lead car of the train (3209), and the ROCC reported at 10:33 a.m. that third rail on the affected track had been de-energized.

At 10:34 a.m., ERT personnel reported that a burnt insulator which previously had been arcing had been removed; permission was given to the ROCC to restore third rail power so that T-153 could be moved to Farragut North.

T-153’s operator reported the handbrake on 3209 was removed at 10:41 a.m., and the train berthed at Farragut North by 10:43 a.m. to continue towards Shady Grove in revenue service.

Rail service on the inbound track from Farragut North to Metro Center was restored at 10:44 a.m., while rail service from Metro Center towards Farragut North was restored at 10:47 a.m.

Notable Events

  • Train 153 was in the tunnel between Metro Center and Farragut North for approximately 34 minutes
  • We believe WMATA ERT personnel removed debris from the trackbed when the burnt insulator was also removed; the debris could have caught fire from arcing on the insulator
  • Passengers aboard T-153 reported smelling smoke while the train was in the tunnel, and reported limited communications from the operator [2]
  • Third rail power remained energized approximately 24 minutes after the start of the incident
  • Intermittent radio issues in the area where T-153 was held caused difficulties in communicating between the train operator, the ROCC, and ERT personnel
  • T-153’s operator spent approximately five minutes outside the train from 10:21 to 10:26 a.m. performing a ground walkaround after a passenger reported a person exiting the train in the tunnel
  • The WMATA ROCC announced that fans in the incident area were activated at approximately 10:15 a.m. (Rail Transit OPS is unable to verify the direction of fan activation)


  • WMATA Red Line service was promptly halted on both tracks in the affected area
  • The operator of T-153 did not clearly identify the location of the train, nor the location of the reported fire when reporting it to the ROCC, both of which caused reversing the train’s direction to take longer than necessary; had the operator of T-153 reported that the train was past the source of fire, the ROCC could have allowed T-153 to continue to Farragut North
  • WMATA ERT personnel did not properly verify that they had permission from the WMATA ROCC before beginning their work to remove the defective insulator
  • Communications and coordination between the ROCC and the Metro Transit Police Department (MTPD) appeared to be poorly executed and organized
    • MTPD personnel were not dispatched to respond to the incident until 10:21 a.m., 12 minutes after it was reported to the ROCC
    • MTPD officers had not confirmed until approximately 10:31 a.m. that there was a train (T-153) in the tunnel between Metro Center and Farragut North in the area affected by the reported track fire

[1] A ground walkaround is when an operator exits a train and physically walks around all sides of the train while on the roadway. This procedure is part of the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) before a train leaves a rail yard to be put into revenue service, or when an Emergency Door Release (EDR) is broken.


This is a preliminary incident report, and information is subject to change.


Rail Transit OPS Group is an independent, publicly-funded organization that monitors rail transit operations, performance, and safety procedures to proactively address potential issues. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.