Inspectors work in two-person teams. Until late in 2009, each checked one rail, but now one person is dedicated to watching for approaching trains and other perils. The other checks both rails on a track for defects during the period between morning and afternoon rush hours.
“You lose your inspection effectiveness by 50 percent,” said Kevin Morris, a Metro track inspector supervisor.
Metro General Manager Richard Sarles, who has pledged to make safety the top priority of the transit authority, said concerns about the inspections had not come to his attention. Resources for conducting the rail checks are finite, he said, but Metro is considering investing more in track repairs overall.
The use of the lookouts, Metro says, is intended to protect its track inspectors. Eight Metro employees have been killed on the tracks since 2005, including four since the deadly crash of two trains on the Red Line in June 2009.
Metro, the nation’s second-busiest subway system, has more than 200 miles of tracks that must be inspected twice each week under federal regulations. At least several times a year, inspectors discover problems such as cracked rails, which can be caused by dramatic swings in temperature. Metro either slows trains or halts them and conducts emergency repairs.
For example, inspectors found two cracked rails on one day in January. The morning commute on two lines became a meltdown of delays and crowded trains.
The National Transportation Safety Board has investigated train derailments caused by cracked rails. One example is the derailment of a Canadian Pacific Railway freight train near Minot, N.D., in 2002 that injured two crew members and released a cloud of ammonia that killed one person and injured more than 300.
In late 2009, Metro assigned half of its 46 track inspectors to work as watchmen for oncoming trains — leaving one person on each team to scan the rails and increasing the possibility that a problem could be missed, the inspectors said.
The manpower shift followed two fatal accidents involving Metro workers struck on the tracks in August and September of 2009. It also came after a critical December 2009 report by the group that oversees safety at Metro, the Tri-State Oversight Committee, and an investigation by The Washington Post that chronicled years of safety deficiencies.
Metro created a new set of roadway protection rules, formally implemented April 1, that are intended to bolster training, tighten safeguards, and give track workers more control over train movements through their work zones.