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Originally published December 2, 2011 at 9:06 PM | Page modified December 3, 2011 at 8:39 AM

Open door on light-rail train chills Sound Transit officials

A Sound Transit train carrying morning commuters recently traveled almost two miles with an open door, from Stadium Station to Westlake Station, a lapse that put passengers at risk.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

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A Sound Transit train carrying morning commuters recently traveled almost two miles with an open door, from Stadium Station to Westlake Station, a lapse that put passengers at risk.

Nobody was injured in the Oct. 25 incident, which prompted an internal investigation and led transit managers to recommend the operator be fired.

The operator said she reported the door problem as an emergency. She said she thought the door had closed before continuing to move the train, and that control-center staff should have verified the door status before telling her to proceed into the downtown transit tunnel.

King County Metro, which runs the train system, puts the blame on the operator.

Sound Transit said this is the first time one of its trains moved with an open door, something that happens on rare occasions in other cities.

"I just cringed when I heard that," said Paul Denison, director of light-rail operations. "We absolutely do not operate trains with doors open; that is absolutely not allowed in any way, shape or form."

He said trains are designed not to move with an open door unless someone overrides certain circuits.

Sound Transit didn't announce the incident or report it to the governing board's operations committee.

There was no point in publicizing it, said transit spokesman Bruce Gray, because Metro took the train out of service promptly. The incident was discussed among managers in a safety meeting of local agencies, said Mike Flood, state Department of Transportation rail-safety officer.

The Oct. 25 problem began at Stadium Station around 7:45 a.m. The operator told The Seattle Times a light on her console indicated an open door on the left side of the rear rail car. She called the control center to report an emergency, she said, then walked back to the open door. She reached into a cabinet to reset switches above the door.

Several other things that happened at the cabinet are in dispute.

Then the operator walked out through the open door, returning to the cab, both sides agree. She said she pressed a reset button in the cab and thought the door then closed securely.

She received permission from the control center to proceed, without walking back to reinspect the door. The train continued to the downtown tunnel, including four station stops. Tunnel security guards at two stations saw the open door and tried to have the train stopped, according to a Metro report released Friday by Sound Transit.

Metro contends in a disciplinary letter to the operator that, "You did not confirm the door was closed before departing Stadium Station."

Denison said that, as with an airline pilot, ultimate responsibility lies with the operator. "The proper training is, I don't move with the door open."

The operator said she was trained to understand a rail car wouldn't move if doors were open.

The control center does not have a computer feed showing the door status, and cameras at the stations don't provide views of all doors, transit spokesman Gray said.

A disciplinary meeting is scheduled Wednesday.

Door openings not automatic

Seattle's Link trains are operated by the driver, unlike the fully automated Vancouver, B.C., SkyTrain or the short subway under Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. On Link light-rail, braking, station stops and issues such as door glitches all depend on human judgment.

Doors on Link trains are opened by the operators at each station and are designed to close themselves.

Once or twice a month, a door malfunctions. A door can stick open if a bicycle is wedged through, if someone kicks the door, or if the door repeatedly hits an object, Denison said.

Operators often solve the problem in minutes by pulling the door closed by hand and disabling its automatic open-and-close mechanism, Denison said.

The day before the Oct. 25 incident, the same door stuck open on the same train with the same operator, at Rainier Beach Station, and the problem was fixed safely with help from an on-scene supervisor, Metro says.

Around the country, transit trains have traveled with open doors, but it's uncommon. New Jersey Transit had a rash of five openings in early 2008, according to The New York Times. In January of this year, a commuter train in New York City ran with an open door, and video by one of the passengers was uploaded to YouTube.

Vancouver's SkyTrain, which has used driverless vehicles since 1986, has run with a partly open door only once, for just over a mile, said spokesman Ken Hardie. This occurred three years ago while a train was being run manually in a snowstorm; technicians and an operator misunderstood what Hardie called a one-in-a-million situation.

The door system that Link uses has worked reliably for years on modern light-rail vehicles, Denison said.

Previous operator mistakes

However, there have been incidents in Seattle in which train operators accidentally opened doors on the wrong side of a stopped train, which could have caused a passenger to fall a few feet. (Passengers who see an open door or other unsafe conditions should press a red emergency button to call the train's operator.)

There were 11 door violations during station stops in the early months of Link, which opened in July 2009. These were among two dozen cases in which Metro suspended or proposed to suspend operators, but punishments were reduced or deferred after negotiations between union representatives and the county.

Paul Bachtel, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587, declined to comment on the Oct. 25 case, except to say the union will defend its member at what he calls a "first step."

The Seattle Times and the union both have filed formal requests for reports, audio and video. The Times agreed not to identify the operator until further evidence and findings are available.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com. On Twitter: @mikelindblom

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