Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on February 8, 2021.

Subway Blaze

Substation fire gnarls commutes for subway users in North America's largest city


On January 9, a fire at a substation at the headquarters of Mexico City’s sprawling subway system shut down six main train lines and gnarled the morning commute for hundreds of thousands of people in North America’s largest city.

A police officer was killed when she slipped and fell from the subway building during the fire, according to news reports. Thirty others were hospitalized, mostly from smoke inhalation.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but reports speculated that either an electrical failure at the substation or an oil spill may have sparked it. The blaze, which produced billowing smoke across the city of nearly 9 million, was finally brought under control almost 12 hours after it started. The newspaper Milenio reported that it could take up to three months to repair the damaged subway lines, which are among the busiest in the entire system.

“This incident has frustrated commuters and is raising important questions about necessary maintenance and upgrades,” said Jaime Gutierrez, NFPA’s International development director for Latin America. “Given that I am charged with advancing government responsibility, fire and life safety infrastructure, code compliance, and emergency response strategies in Mexico City, I, too, have a lot of questions including the obvious one: ‘How did this fire happen?’”

NFPA research shows that fire departments in the United States responded to an estimated 1,100 fires per year in or at rapid transit stations between 2014–2018. Since 1983, NFPA has produced NFPA 130, Standard for Fixed Guideway Transit and Passenger Rail Systems, which helps jurisdictions address design, maintenance, and safety requirements. Officials in Mexico believe that deferred maintenance may have played a role in January’s fire.  

In a television interview, a former director of the Metro told Mexico News Daily that the substation was outdated and in need of repair. “These installations should have been replaced 20 years ago [or] at least changed gradually [but] that wasn’t the case,” Jorge Gaviño said. “They’re old, obsolete systems that definitely have to be given adequate maintenance to avoid … risks to passengers.”

JESSE ROMAN is associate editor for NFPA Journal. ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal Top photograph: Getty Images