Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on May 5, 2021.

Danger of Negligence

Mexico City lies on unstable, sinking ground. Critics contend government officials ignored this fact when they expanded the city’s subway a decade ago, and that likely led to disaster.


At least 25 people died and nearly 100 more were injured May 3 when an overpass supporting Line 12 of the Mexico City Metro subway system collapsed, sending packed subway cars plummeting 50 feet to the ground below. 

Experts say the incident serves as a prime example of what can go wrong when governments underinvest in infrastructure and repeatedly ignore warnings about those decisions putting lives at risk—even when others do their best to prioritize safety. It’s a concept illustrated by the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem™, whose eight components must work together to create safe environments. 

“If all the parts don’t work properly, in the end, the entire system can fail and the result can be awful,” said Jaime Gutierrez, NFPA’s representative to Latin America, who lives in Mexico City. “And that, unfortunately, is what happened with this recent train disaster.”     

A ‘completely broken’ subway line

A unique hazard exists in Mexico City. The ground that runs below the ancient, high-altitude capital city of more than 8.8 million people was once a lake and sinks an estimated three feet per year. Because of this, buildings, bridges, and other vital infrastructure must be deeply rooted in the ground in order to be stable. 

But when government officials embarked nearly 10 years ago on a project to add a 12th line to the city’s sprawling subway system, which sees about 4.5 million users per day, they largely ignored this fact, Gutierrez said, adding that there was “a lot of corruption” in the budgeting and spending process for the project.

“The subway wasn’t built according to the conditions of the land of Mexico City,” Gutierrez said. “The line is completely broken. It’s very bad construction. With earthquakes and the natural movement of the city, the structure of the subway line has started to move.” One major earthquake in particular, which struck in 2017, is thought to have inflicted severe damage on Line 12 and others, creating visible cracks in subway platform concrete.

According to media reports, in the years following Line 12’s opening, government officials have also ignored repeated warnings that the line would fail. 

“This could have been avoided,” a representative of a union of Mexico City’s subway workers told the New York Times, which reported that over a dozen complaints from workers were sent to city transportation officials in the past several years—all of them ignored. “If us workers were really listened to by this administration, a lot of problems would be avoided.” According to the Los Angeles Times, more than 8,000 Metro employees were planning to protest the subway’s substandard conditions in the near future. 

In 2014, only a couple of years after Line 12 opened, the government did shut it down for a year and a half to make repairs, after a congressional investigation revealed “deficient, hasty and incomplete certification of the functionality and safety of the line.” But doubts remained over its safety, and the Metro’s 2018-2030 master plan called for millions of dollars in investments to help address some of these problems. “Line 12, inaugurated in 2012, is on the verge of requiring major maintenance activity,” the plan said. The plan called for allocating by far the most resources to Line 12 to carry out projects including rebuilding rails with tight curves and refurbishment every two years.

At NFPA, this week’s incident has been viewed through the lens of the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem. While it seems subway workers knew the signs of impending danger and reported them to the appropriate authorities, those authorities didn’t take the proper actions to fix things, an example of one Ecosystem component—skilled workforce— working well while another—government responsibility—fails. 

“This tragedy is a painful reminder that safety is a system,” said Lorraine Carli, vice president of Outreach and Advocacy at NFPA. “Even though some components of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem may be working, when other pieces of the Ecosystem are ignored or not prioritized, the result can be catastrophic failures with deadly consequences.” 

Mexico City’s recent subway crash comes on the heels of a fire that tore through a subway facility there in January. The blaze injured over two dozen people, forced the shutdown of six subway lines, and led to the death of a police officer, who slipped and fell off the building while responding to the incident. Days after the fire, Gutierrez wrote a blog pointing to NFPA research and various resources pertaining to fire safety in subways and other rail systems, which was also published in Spanish.

Olga Caledonia, director of International Development at NFPA, said both the January fire and this week’s subway crash stress the importance of NFPA continuing to maintain its strong, decades-long relationships with policymakers and safety professionals in Latin America. “Not only are NFPA codes and standards published in Spanish, but NFPA also offers many additional resources in Spanish,” Caledonia added. This includes, for example, a Spanish version of “2019: A Year in Review,” a report that examines 2019 fires and other incidents in the context of the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem.

ANGELO VERZONI is a staff writer for NFPA Journal. Follow him on Twitter @angelo_verzoni. Top photograph: AP/WIDE WORLD