CHOKEPOINTS

Sound Transit failed to perform crucial safety checks before Apple Cup incident, CEO says

Feb 9, 2022, 6:19 PM | Updated: Feb 11, 2022, 9:15 am

light rail tunnel, Apple Cup...

Light rail passengers began self-evacuating and walking through the tunnel after the train lost power and came to an abrupt stop 1,000 feet north of UW Station after the Apple Cup game on Nov. 26, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Sound Transit)

(Photo courtesy of Sound Transit)

No one was seriously injured. That’s about the only good thing you can say about the list of mistakes Sound Transit made leading up to the emergency inside the University of Washington light rail tunnel after the Apple Cup in November, from the mouth of Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff.

Rogoff outlined the results of a two-month investigation into the emergency Wednesday afternoon.

The incident began Nov. 26 as thousands of football fans were leaving the Apple Cup, many using the new light rail extension from Husky Stadium to Northgate, which had only opened for service about two months earlier.

Sound Transit investigating incident where passengers on disabled train walked into tunnels

The train came to a sudden stop, and passengers were left in the dark in an unventilated tunnel. When no announcements came over the intercom, and no alerts came to passengers’ cell phones, hundreds of people forced the doors open and started walking through the tunnel system to get out on their own.

The cause of the emergency

The train full of passengers was riding too low under a full load, and the conduit carrying the electrical and communication wires was sagging. It struck a bolt on the floating section of track between the rails that shouldn’t have been there. This ripped the conduit apart, severing all power and communications.

Sound Transit Auditor Patrick Johnson admitted the agency never actually tested how far a full Series 2 train car would sag under a football crowd load.

“The conduit was hanging too low,” he said. “The additional weight further reduced ground clearance under the vehicle, and the un-cut EMI rod protruded excessively above top of rail.”

And it wasn’t just one rod. These electromagnetic interference rods were sticking up all over the tunnel, something CEO Rogoff said is inexcusable.

“They should have been cut before we even got onto pre-revenue testing or had any trains operating, even as test trains,” he said.

But it gets worse: Light rail trains were hitting these bolts from the opening of operations out of Northgate a month earlier.

“There were numerous maintenance reports about damage that was occurring to both types of light rail vehicles,” Johnson said. “These maintenance reports noted that vehicles were striking something underneath the vehicles, with minor but non-disabling damage.”

Johnson said those problems were properly reported, but they never made it far enough up the chain of command to be addressed.

In total, the mistakes amount to failure to properly load test trains, failure to cut down the rods for proper clearance, and failure to address reported ongoing damage to trains.

The communications issues

At 8:20 p.m., the power conduit is cut, and the train stops. The train operator doesn’t make the first announcement to passengers for 12 minutes. By then, most of the passengers were already walking in the tunnel. Communications between Sound Transit and Metro, which runs the line and is responsible for emergencies, breaks down. The fact that this was an actual emergency never reached the right people.

Rogoff himself wasn’t even notified for 90 minutes. Calls to the on-duty information officer were not answered. And the communications team at Sound Transit had to learn about the incident when reporters started asking about it an hour and 40 minutes later.

“Sound Transit’s performance that night was inexcusable,” Rogoff said. “We apologize to our riders, again, for the errors leading up to and during this incident, and we commit to doing better.”

Rogoff said the agency is working with King County Metro to improve communications, which includes putting the teams in the same operations building, but that won’t happen until 2023. It is beefing up its operator training to better handle emergency situations as well, and Sound Transit will be sure to cut bolts and do a better job on clearance and load testing on the current light rail expansions.

“This now becomes our blueprint on how to do better,” Rogoff said. “Having this level of detail on precisely what went wrong, and why it went wrong, in an incident that in the end had no injuries is in a bizarre way, a backward way, a gift to us to make sure that we get it right.”

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Sound Transit failed to perform crucial safety checks before Apple Cup incident, CEO says