Metro has cut by half the number of workers who carry out the dangerous yet critical job of inspecting tracks for cracked rails and other hazards that can cause problems including rush-hour delays and derailments.

Track inspectors say the change marks a trade-off between employee and customer safety at a time when Washington’s 35-year-old transit system struggles with deteriorating tracks, a mounting maintenance deficit and chronic budget shortfalls.

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.

A senior Metro safety official said his office was not aware of the inspectors’ concerns. “That issue hasn’t been brought to us . . . that they couldn’t perform their inspections effectively,” said Kenneth Sundberg, Metro’s assistant chief safety officer.

Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel said in an e-mail that the agency has a “sufficient number” of track inspectors and that the use of two-man inspection teams is standard in the transit industry. But track inspectors working for New York City Transit, the nation’s largest subway system, only inspect one rail at a time, according to Kevin Ortiz, a spokesman for the New York agency.

Miles to check

The inspectors, wearing hard hats and reflective vests, scour Metro’s network of tracks each day, largely unnoticed. They avoid the trains whizzing by every few minutes and the “third rail” that carries 750 volts of electricity.

Twice each week, they must physically inspect the entire rail system’s 106 miles of track — 212 miles, including both directions — looking for wear and defects. Each quarter, they inspect rail yards and rail segments from the end of the line to the yards, the officials said. Each worker must cover about six to seven miles of track a day in the non-rush-hour period between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.

“Four eyes are better than two, anytime,” said Junior Delgado, 37, who has worked for Metro as a track inspector for 10 years. “We are trying not to miss anything, because I don’t want something happening out there.”

Track inspectors say Metro should have added a third employee to each inspection team to act as the watchman.

“We are understaffed,” Morris, the supervisor, said as he stood on the platform at the Van Dorn Street Station and watched a co-worker walk the tracks. “People are going to be trying just to get it done, and they are not giving you a quality inspection.”

An official with the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents most Metro workers, said the union had advised members to do their best. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he had not been authorized to speak publicly.

Each inspector has a minimum of two years’ experience in track maintenance and has completed an 18-week training class. Walking at a normal pace, the inspectors look for wear, corrosion from water leaks and other defects. They check ties and bolts and fasteners that may need tightening and make measurements of segments that are not uniform, said Wes Albright, who handles track maintenance as Metro’s assistant general superintendent of track and structures.

‘Unforgiving environment’

Track inspectors say they are constantly on edge.

“I’ve been out on the railroad for 29 years. It’s a hazardous and unforgiving environment,” said Clay Bunting, who oversees track inspectors as Metro’s assistant general superintendent of track and structures.

Bunting said he becomes concerned for his teams every time an e-mail pops up on his BlackBerry saying “person struck by train.” Most often, that indicates a suicide attempt, but it can also mean another employee has been killed on the tracks.

“I have met families at hospitals, and that is something I never want to do again,” he said. “We have to be right 100 percent of the time.”

The deaths include two track workers hit by a service vehicle near Rockville Station in January 2010. The NTSB is investigating that accident. Another worker, a communications technician, died after a train hit him in September 2009 between the Braddock Road and Reagan National Airport stations. In August 2009, a worker was killed after a gravel-spreading machine hit him on the Orange Line.

A Tri-State Oversight Committee audit released in October 2010 found that the deaths were “generally preventable.” It also revealed ongoing safety rule violations by Metro personnel working near or on the tracks, including a lack of safety briefings and “acute problems” in the safety training program for track workers.

TOC Chairman Matt Bassett said he was not aware of how Metro was conducting the track inspections, but he said that having a dedicated watchman was a “significant improvement” in the safety of track workers. “What is important to us is there is one dedicated lookout” with every work crew, he said.

Jarrett Singmore, 40, a track inspector, said distracting noises and quiet rails make the job particularly dangerous. He recalled an incident four years ago at the West Hyattsville Station when he and a partner had to scramble to a catwalk to avoid an oncoming train.

“We didn't hear the train; we looked up just in time,” he said.