Metro identified a major issue with emergency call buttons on its trains Tuesday.
According to Metro, dozens of trains per day have been without functioning emergency intercoms for a lengthy period.
The problem exists with trains that have 6000-series rail cars in the lead. The newer electronics on those cars had trouble communicating with some older cars in the train, specifically 1000- and 4000-series cars, the transit agency said.
When that mismatch occurred, drivers could not get emergency messages from passengers farther back in the train, Metro said.
Metro knew about the problem for four years.
"I did note late in the day yesterday that metro issued a press release four years ago identifying this problem," Metro Board member and head of Metro’s Safety and Security Committee Mort Downey told News4 Thursday.
But the mismatch happened again Monday after two men started fighting aboard a train shortly before the Woodley Park stop. The fight then spilled onto the platform.
Passengers aboard the train told News4 they tried to alert the driver of the train by using the emergency call system but got no response.
"Honestly, I was terrified," Yasmine El-Sabawi said. "There was a woman in front of me and a couple of other people who were ducking just in case there was gunfire, and to think that the emergency button wasn’t working ... I was right next to it, couldn’t hear anybody responding and I was completely, sort of, paralyzed by my fear."
Metro said it reconfigured trains overnight Tuesday to eliminate the issue before the transit system opened Wednesday. The train where passengers witnessed Monday's fight did have that problematic configuration of cars, Metro said Wednesday.
"Certainly you can argue management should be doing a better job keeping track of equipment failures," D.C. Councilmember Muriel Bowser said. "Now if it turns out that some people in the organization knew about this years ago, I know the general manager will want to know what happened."
Metro engineers worked on the issue for months in response to reports of intercom failures from passengers and employees, according to the transit agency. After a News4 I-Team, Metro told Downey it was working on the problem.
"Now that the issue has been identified and verified by engineering staff, we are taking appropriate action to immediately mitigate the situation and resolve it as quickly as possible," General Manager and CEO Richard Sarles said in a statement released Wednesday.
Metro also will conduct a review to determine if the issue should have been detected and addressed sooner.
“That's a question the general manager wants an answer to as well,” Metro Chief Spokesperson Dan Stessel said. “One of the four things that he directed yesterday when he first learned of this was a review of the diagnostic process to determine whether this could or should have been detected sooner and why it wasn’t brought forth sooner.”
Downey said he has questions, too.
"They may not have put the appropriate amount of attention into it,” he said.
As an integral part of the safety system, the intercoms must be working, Downey said.
The intercom signals are carried from car to car through the “train-line” cable, which also carries audio for PA announcements, electronic commands for the doors and data for LED signs.
Engineers determined the signal level in 1000-series cars was too low for a leading 6000-series car to recognize. Different resistors on electronic boards in control panels on the 184 6000-series cars will fix the problem, Metro said. Those upgrades should be complete within 45 days.
The issue with the 4000 series requires a software upgrade in the 4000-series cars for which there is no timetable.
Once the upgrades are complete, 6000-series cars will again be able to lead 1000- and 4000-series cars.
Metro also began spot checks by safety officers of intercoms on trains in service Wednesday morning.
But passengers remain concerned that their calls for help on the call buttons went unanswered. "We don't need new instructions on how to use it," El-Sabawi said to NBCWashington via Twitter today. "When there's panic, people are just going to hit the button and it MUST work.
"This is Washington, D.C.... is Metro prepared for - God forbid - something like the 7/7 bombings? Buttons won't even work to report a fight," El-Sabawi said.
Published at 12:58 PM EDT on Jun 19, 2013