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NTSB image of a Metro car derailment that left three people dead in January, 1982.

NTSB image of a Metro car derailment that left three people dead in January, 1982.


Flashback: January 1982 Fatal Metro Derailment

Derailments, track fires and other incidents on Metro are often blamed on the system’s aging infrastructure, but it’s notable that one of the most deadly accidents took place just six years after trains made their introduction in the District.

In fact, it was 36 years ago this month that an Orange Line train derailed near Federal Triangle, killing three passengers and injuring 25 during the afternoon rush hour. It was the first deadly incident in Metro’s history.

The incident on Jan. 13, 1982 prompted an investigation from the National Transportation Safety Board, which released a report in October of that year.

According to the NTSB, the derailment was the result of a preventable sequence of events stemming from a switch misalignment near the Smithsonian Interlocking, in between the Smithsonian and Federal Triangle stations.

The NTSB report said the incident happened like this:

-For three days leading into the incident, there were reports of possible problems with controls near the Smithsonian Interlocking. The Metrorail Operations Control Center failed to order repairs.

-It was snowing on this day, leading to mechanical problems on many trains. In addition, the weather forced many federal office workers to head home early, making the trains and platforms unusually crowded.

-At about 4:30 p.m. Train 410 was unintentionally routed to a crossover track at the Interlocking.

-Metro’s Operations Control Center then directed the train operator to back the train out of the crossover track without checking to see if it was safe to do so.

-The rear car of the train derailed, and the train crashed into a concrete barrier.

-The aluminum sidewall of the car was breached, resulting in the death of three people and injuries to 25 others. Two people seated next to one another died when they were crushed between the train wall and an overturned seat.

“Glass Was Flying. People Were Screaming”

News reports on the incident outlined a chaotic scene involving a gnarled train and panicked passengers, many of whom were unaware of what happened until they got home. It took more than a full hour to completely evacuate the train, and some riders eventually opened train windows themselves and walked through the tunnel to the Smithsonian station.

“The center wall of the tunnel gradually crunched right into the train like a slow motion movie,” Bowie businessman Arthur Hastings told The Washington Post. “Glass was flying, people were screaming.” Hastings reported that his wife broke her leg in the incident.

Confusion in the Tunnel

The NTSB report outlines a confusing back-and-forth between the train operator, supervisors, and others at the operations control center. The NTSB said that at various times, Metro workers did not follow proper procedures, but also said rules were too complex and often ambiguous.

“The full range of the existing standard operating procedures is so vast and so detailed that it is inconceivable that the typical WMATA supervisor and train operator could be expected to remember everything that has to be done in every given situation,” the report said.

The NTSB report said the weather could have been a contributing factor, but said the incident should have been avoidable.

“The situation was not so much the result of predictable events, such as the weather, the early release of workers, and the train breakdowns, as it was the failure of WMATA to invoke its procedures to prepare for them,” the NTSB said.

The NTSB report also noted that the aluminum sides of the trains were not designed to withstand an impact from the side. In fact, side-impact tests had never been performed on the train cars before they were put in service. Metro trains at the time also did not have derailment detectors, which would have automatically cut power and applied the train brakes.

Do you remember the Metro derailment from Jan. 13, 1982?


NTSB’s Full Investigation Report

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