The Answers Issue: Why does Metro smell like rotten fish sometimes?

Why does Metro smell like rotten fish sometimes? Is it the brakes on the cars?

The great Metro fish mystery seems to appear every few months and usually becomes worse in the summer. Last year, according to news reports, it popped up in January, March, and September.

So what’s behind the odor, which has been described as evoking “decaying flesh,” “dead mice,” and “rotting fish?” The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority has named three potential culprits, and basically left it up to you to decide which one is wrinkling your nose.

The first stink suspect: the general grime of a transit system. In September, the Examiner reported that Metro was blaming the smell on innumerable minor factors. The agency also said customers’ noses could become more sensitive due to “environmental, station and train conditions.”

Next up: the sewers. During a different stink episode, Metro blamed the ditches under the tracks of the underground stations. When the ditches dry out, according to Metro, sewer gas escapes, creating the smell. But the stench has also been reported at above-ground stations, where there are no ditches.

While general grossness and the sewer tunnels both figure in as possible explanations, the Keyser Soze of the mystery smell might actually be a set of organic brake pads the agency once ordered for its trains. According to this explanation, popular among online Metro obsessives, the agency’s attempt to go green backfired when new brakes it installed started emitting the dead-fish smell train passengers know so well.

This explanation is backed up by a customer service message from Metro, posted on Metro-tracking blog Unsuck D.C. Metro in September, which blamed the smell on the brake pads. The agency had already decided not to reorder them, according to the customer service employee, but was trying to go through its supply first. Metro later denied that the brake pads were still in use.

Will this mystery ever be solved? Maybe not until the smell comes back. Metro spokesman Dan Stessel claims that the organic brake pads haven’t been used for years. “When I’ve gone down this road in the past, reporting that we don’t use organic brake pads, it usually ends with me being called a liar,” Stessel writes in an email. “So, we tend to not get into olfactory matters these days.”

Our Readers Say

Stessel, the reason that you get called a liar is that you are a liar. That there is no doubt about.

And I smelled the dead fish smell last week when a train came in at Metro Center. That smell does appear to be a brake issue, although one cannot rule out the notion that Metro is itself just a bloated stinking corpse.
I smelled it just two days ago on Tuesday morning at Archives metro
That scent is almost certainly dead rats. Metro must have exterminated recently, and I can tell from experience that the foul odor is identical to the one in my last apt. building - all winter.
This afternoon, I boarded a Red Line train at Ft. Totten and the stench was overwhelming. It smelled like rotting garbage and fish.
The problem with their "sewer gas" or "stagnant water" explanations is that the smell follows the train. It's CLEARLY an issue related to the train when it happens in station after station after station, outdoor, indoor, no difference. Okay, so you bought some brake pads that stink...that sucks, and hopefully you don't go to that supplier again, but admit that you're just using them up and the problem will go away in X months after we've exhausted our supply. The smell is unpleasant, but if you can't get the supplier to take them back, then just use them up and move on. A little stink won't kill me as fast as overwhelmingly dysfunctional track sensors...
you can be in a station, a train pulls in and it just has a bitter acrid stink.
I used to think it was a burning brake drum, but apparently it's the pads themself.
the mechanics don't care, they work in the yard.
the managers don't care, they don't ride metro.
Someone should round up all these pads and sell them to a transit agency that runs all above ground.

Metro needs to get their story straight:
Oh Dan Stessel! At what point do reporters just ignore him because he has no credibility left?
The smell is back today - and it's horrific.
Yellow line train, 9 a.m., 2/11/14 from Huntington toward Convention Center... Smell was of overwhelming rotten fish in at least two of the cars -- horrible...!!!!
Stinky yellow line fish car, march 25, 2014. Stinky from fort totten to huntington.
Clearly the issue is far from resolved. I began using Metro regularly again this past January 2014. The first time I encountered it I was almost knocked off my feet at L'Enfant Plaza. I thought it was the water from the Potomac. However I have experienced the smell again and again since then in other stations - most notably Huntington Station this morning from the train I just missed as it left
the platform. Thank goodness I missed the train! Metro, it is time to invest in Febreeze or those air purifiers (cover up) used in restrooms in your stations, in and outside the cars too!

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