Massive subway outage caused by human error, not power outage, report finds

The investigation by two outside engineering firms found that a power-off switch was manually activated at the New York City Transit Rail Control Center.

News 12 Staff

Sep 10, 2021, 3:38 PM

Updated 1,010 days ago


Gov. Kathy Hochul released the findings of an investigation into the widespread power outage that hit all of the MTA's numbered lines and the L train on Aug. 29.
Two outside engineering firms, HDR and WSP, conducted the investigation to determine the root cause and found the outage was caused by human error, not by a power surge.
The governor is directing a full review of operation control centers across the entire MTA to identify and mitigate any other potential weaknesses.
"New Yorkers deserve absolute confidence in a fully functioning subway system, and it is our job to restore that confidence," Hochul says. "I am also directing the MTA to review all operation control centers across the entire system to identify any further potential weaknesses and provide assurance in preventing a situation like this from happening ever again. We will deliver the modernization, enhancements, and reliability that riders deserve."
The new report reveals that the precipitating cause of the loss of power at the New York City Transit Rail Control Center was the byproduct of a manually activated power-off switch on one of the building's power distribution units, according to the governor. Preliminary indications suggest that the emergency push button might have been accidentally pressed since a plastic guard that would prevent accidental activation was missing.
On Aug. 30, the MTA released its initial findings into the cause of the subway outage, at the time saying Con Edison experienced a "power anomaly" around 8:25 p.m. the night prior, impacting seven subway lines. The backup emergency systems then failed to activate. 
The MTA also said an alert system meant to notify subway management of the failures did not work.
As a result, the MTA said the managers thought the systems were operating correctly when they were actually only relying on batteries, which are not meant for long-term use. It says the batteries cut at 9:14 p.m., causing the widespread service interruption.
Some passengers were left stranded when 83 trains across seven lines lost power. Some commuters resorted to traveling through the tunnels rather than sitting in subway cars while waiting for the power to be restored.
"After a while, people started arguing and fighting and being claustrophobic, so I took it upon myself to get out of there," says Rich Baez, who was stuck on the No. 2 train in the Bronx when the trains stopped. "Multiple people were climbing off the train in the middle of the tunnel and walking on the tracks to get to the next station. We had to walk for about a quarter-mile underground."
After the power-off switch was activated, internal organization and process flaws then resulted in the failure to restore power for more than an hour, according to the report. The firms investigating the incident found the effects of the incident were exacerbated due to the RCC's lack of a power distribution monitoring system.
"The report tasks the MTA with immediately reorganizing how we maintain and manage key systems that support the RCC," says MTA Acting Chair and CEO Janno Lieber. "The agency will also install additional cable connections to improve power redundancy in the building, as well as a more comprehensive Building Management System that will provide detailed visibility into the status of the building's electrical distribution, mechanical, and security systems."
"I want to thank Gov. Hochul for really digging into these issues with us and helping to identify lasting solutions," Lieber says.

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