Passenger Egress – A Priority for Metro Rail Lines

by Thomas Renner

Underground rail transit systems in the United States can be dangerous places. Not only for their riders and employees, but also for emergency responders, who may be called to help evacuate people from the area safely or to stop a blaze. The confined spaces, tight stairwells, and potential for the emergency evacuation of hundreds – if not thousands – of riders means that a project must be well-designed, thought-out, and constructed of materials that do not burn.

Thomas Renner headshotCode-compliant egress is essential for any building, but underground rail lines make it especially challenging to design a proper egress solution. “Most egress codes are based on walking out of an apartment or a building where a door is three feet wide,” Harold Levitt said during a February phone interview from his New Jersey home. Levitt is a former New York Port Authority of New York and New Jersey employee and a former Manager of Capital Programs for PATH (Port Authority Trans-Hudson Corporation). PATH is a subsidiary of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Levitt is also a former chairperson of the committee that created the language for the National Fire Protection Association Standard NFPA 130, “Standard for Fixed Guideway Transit and Passenger Rail Systems” – the standard that addresses railroad egress. “You could have 1,000 people on a train or in a tunnel. If you don’t have properly planned egress, you’ll have a choke point that could result in an unwanted condition,” he continued.

Providing emergency egress for rail riders and even building crews is one of the top concerns for design and construction teams creating a new rail line in Los Angeles, California. The line includes three underground stations and three at-grade stations will also include emergency doors to allow access to underground control stations. Two stations are above grade.

Plans for the 8.5-mile, $2.058 billion rail line started shortly after the Los Angeles riots in 1992. The extension is designed to better serve transit-dependent residents in the corridor and provide economic stimulus in the region.

NFPA Sets Rules for Code Compliance

Compliance for underground egress falls under two key codes from the National Fire Protection Association. NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, characterizes platforms and stations as assembly occupancies, with provisions requiring egress systems that facilitate rapid and efficient evacuation, according to an article in the NFPA Journal. This code works with NFPA 130, which specifies fire protection and life safety requirements for underground, surface, and elevated fixed guideway transit and passenger rail systems. The code includes guidelines on fire protection requirements and emergency ventilation systems.

Egress systems also support workers who are constructing the line. Construction is the most dangerous job in the United States according to statistics compiled by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The federal agency reported, “5,190 workers were killed on the job in 2016, … an average of more than 99 a week or more than 14 deaths every day.”

“There have been older stations that were not always compliant with the current code,’’ Levitt said. “That’s changed over time. Any modification to a station when transit properties agree to do so are upgraded to meet the current code. A number of stations have engineered solutions, such as safe fire zones as in safe areas of refuge to evacuate people from stations more orderly by keeping them behind fire doors/walls. Many stations have thus become substantially safer.”

Doors Designed for Safe Egress

The Los Angeles County Metro Rail System and Walsh/Shea Corridor Constructors, which is building the line, used specialty access doors to comply with the fire code egress laws. The project was specified with six emergency exit hatches and four large doors to access the underground control systems (see slideshow). The hatches and doors are installed all along the lengthy project, which is expected to be complete in October 2019.

The doors are equipped with custom features that make them ideal for use in this application. Each of these heavy doors is supplied with an engineered lift assistance system and a two-point panic locking mechanism that allow the doors to open with less than 30-pounds of force, a critical requirement for safe egress in an emergency.

Additional features also need to be added at the ground level where the doors will be installed in sidewalks to ensure reliability and added safety. To prevent structural damage, the doors are reinforced for vehicular loading to withstand the weight of an occasional car or truck that may drive onto the sidewalk. They also feature a slip-resistant coating on the walking surface to ensure safety in these high-pedestrian traffic areas.

Two emergency doors are at underground stations at Expo/Crenshaw, Martin Luther King, and Leimert Park. The stations at Hyde Park, Fairview Heights, Downtown Inglewood, and Westchester/Veterans are at-grade and the Aviation/Century stop is elevated, so emergency evacuation doors are not required.

Access Doors for Underground Egress Slideshow Cover

Increased Need for Swift Egress

Providing code-compliant egress for passengers seems to have become more critical in the past decade. Terrorist attacks and a crumbling infrastructure have made underground transportation particularly hazardous.

The deadliest terrorist assault in rail line history occurred in London on 7 July 2005, when a series of coordinated terrorist attacks killed 52 people and injured more than 700. The tragedy was the first Islamic suicide attack on Britain. Since the London tragedy, there have been more than 15 attacks worldwide, including a blast in 2016 in Belgium that killed 20 people. Potential attacks on U.S. soil in New York (2009) and Washington (2010) were foiled.

“NFPA 130 was never meant to deal with terrorism because, when it was established in the 1970s, there was nothing around to consider,’’ Levitt said. “It’s always an issue because there is no way of knowing what the limits are. Is it an explosive? Biological? Nuclear? It’s very difficult because there is such a wide range of potential threats.”

Inadequate maintenance and costly repairs have also taken their toll on underground transportation. In 2015, riders of the Washington, D.C., Metrorail system subway stopped because of smoke in a tunnel. When smoke seeped into the cars, one woman died and 91 people were injured. The cause of the smoke, according to the National Transit Safety Board (NTSB), was a fire triggered by electrical arcing from a high-voltage rail. The NTSB said the short circuit had gone undetected and unrepaired.

In 2017 in New York, the subway system stopped twice in one day due to track fires. Many of the issues are related to trash on the tracks. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority removes nearly 40 tons of garbage daily from the intricate system, which covers 245 miles across 36 lines and opened in 1904. In 2014, the MTA reported a staggering 525 track fires throughout its subway system. More than half of the fires (329) involved debris, grease, and garbage.

Updating Infrastructure in Los Angeles

The Los Angeles project is part of a major infrastructure update in advance of the 2028 Summer Olympics. The new projects are designed to increase the use of public transportation and ease congestion on the city’s roadways. The “City of Angels” is also building a nine-mile extension to a Westside subway line and an automated people mover that will serve people on the Crenshaw Line and help them connect to the broader Metro rail network.

While much needed and anticipated, rider and worker safety are of critical importance to the project. Dave Pebley of Specialty Building Components, The BILCO Company sales representative in Pico Rivera, California, feels the Metro Rail Line and Walsh/Shea did their due diligence in taking the proper precautions. “These doors work easily and be are very reliable,’’ he said. “The owner of the project took the safety of the workers and the riders into consideration very early on. They understood that, in a project like this, safety is paramount.”

Thomas Renner is an award-winning, Connecticut-based journalist who writes extensively on construction and other building trades.