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January 28, 2006

Fire On The Train

It was a typical Thursday, mid-afternoon, when Metro-North train #1540 pulled out of Grand Central on time at 3:34 pm, heading for New Haven. But this train’s journey on January 26th was to be anything but normal.

As recounted by an eye-witness, here is what happened.

Snaking its way through the underground yards, the train moved toward the Park Avenue tunnel when passengers in the fourth car of the eight car train started smelling smoke. Though they didn’t know it, a traction motor on the 1994-built M6 car, one of the newest in our aging fleet, had caught fire.

There were no flames, but there surely was smoke, not only in the fourth car but the three others that followed it. As that smoke grew thicker, being pumped into the cars by the ventilation system, passengers started coughing… and looking for help.

Because there is no intercom system on our trains, one of the passengers reached up to the ceiling and pushed the conductor buzzer system used to communicate with the motorman driving the train. A voice came over the PA system and, rather than explaining the smoke condition and what was being done to get help, told them to “lay off of the buzzer!”.

By now the train had stopped, still underground. A conductor moved forward, looking to trip the circuit-breakers for the burning motor and to shut off the HVAC fans still pumping acrid smoke into the cars. When that was finally accomplished, passengers were told to “move forward” to the unaffected cars. The train continued north through the tunnels to 125th Street.

Finally arriving at the above-ground station eight minutes later, the doors opened and the train was evacuated. Another train was dispatched from GCT to pick up the stranded passengers and they continued on their journey. There were no injuries but lots of rattled nerves.

This is at least the third such fire on Metro-North New Haven line trains in recent years. None got much publicity. Were it not for an eye-witness to this fire (who was also equipped with a cell-phone camera) who contacted the Commuter Council, this incident might never have gained attention. (Metro-North initially told me they had no reports of a fire… but there had been a “smoke condition”. Well, where there’s smoke…)

It will be at least two to three more years before our new M8 cars are in service, so what do I say to commuters who ask: Is it safe to ride Metro-North existing fleet of 30+ year old cars? What if this smoky fire had been a terrorist attack? Was “lay off the buzzer” the best the railroad could say to panicked passengers in a smoke-filled car? Will there be more such incidents, and if so, how can we handle them better?

The Commuter Council will be following up on this case with the authorities, and I’ll let you know what we find.


JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 14 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at or . For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see


katoagogo said...

Jim: Thainks for posting this. I was on a car two years ago that was behind a car that caught fire and the passengers were moved into my car, with smoke trailing behind.

We were above ground somewhere between New Haven and the City, and the train continued onward.

I don't ride the train very often, maybe 4 or 5 times a year, but I've witnessed that fire, a side door panel that covers wires and circut panels falling apart next to mt shoulder, and a train pulling the cables down ontop of the tracks and the whole train load being off-loaded at Milford and waiting several hours outdoors (because it was Sunday and no one came around to open the Milford station) for a deisel engine to arrive.

So, for me, about one ride out of every five has a major breakdown or emergency. Not very good odds.

William's Sims Adminstration said...

Three months ago I was stuck at Norotan Heights when a train riped down wires in Bridgeport, there were no anouncements made other than "The 10:48 train to Grand Central Termnal countunues to be delayed stay posted for further anouncements" after this noting was anounced and I needed to find a ride. A freand of mine was stuck on the train that was delayed for 3+ houers with little anouncements and no AC.

Twice on my way home frome school this year the train car I have been in has lost power to the lights and gone dark. Three times on my way to school the train doors acted up and it took the conducter 5+ min to close them.

Once three years ago on a feild trip my train broke down right out side of my station and took a good amount of time to fix.

I cannot weight to the M8 rail cars start running on our tracks.