The federal safety management inspection of Metro included observations both grave and curious about the subway system.
Some passages of the report hit on issues already identified as concerns after a fatal Jan. 12 smoke incident in a tunnel just south of the L’Enfant Plaza station: radio communications, ventilation and emergency response at Metro’s rail operations control center, which monitors passenger and maintenance equipment on the lines.
Other passages offer insights into how things work — or don’t — day in and day out.
A selection of findings from the report on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, released Wednesday, by the Federal Transit Administration:
●When Metro opened the Silver Line last summer, rail controllers did not receive a tour of the new line to see its configuration. Metro gave them a DVD to show the alignment.
●Field trips are rare. Most veteran controllers interviewed by inspectors said they haven’t seen the field or roadway in over six years.
●The controller desk that handles trains on the Blue/Orange/Silver lines is nicknamed “The Monster” because it handles a disproportionate volume of calls and activities. But all of the controller desks handle a high level of activity compared with similar transit agencies.
●While federal inspectors were watching, assistant superintendents or superintendents at the rail center requested information from controllers by “yelling down” to their location. Also, as inspectors watched, shift briefings occurred “informally” as “coats were being put on and bags being gathered up to leave, with nothing formally written down or signed.” Also, inspectors witnessed controllers using their cellphones while on duty.
●After rail accidents, Metro typically focuses its investigation on train operators but “generally does not look at the performance of the [operations center] or the individual [controllers] . . . . .” In “a few instances,” Metro did not make sure that controllers involved in incidents were taken for mandatory drug and alcohol tests.
●Controllers are supposed to be recertified every year, but that has not happened since 2012, which the report calls a “significant breach” in ensuring that they are proficient. There also is “very little” practice or simulation for emergencies, including tunnel fires and derailments.
●Metro is short-staffed at the control center, but veteran controllers balk at making hiring easier “due to the potential loss in overtime.”
●There is a “significant number” of dead spots in WMATA’s radio system, and despite some upgrades, “I can’t hear you, Central” is a frequent radio transmission from the field. Many employees throughout the agency ranked poor radio performance as their top safety issue.
●Even when repairs to tunnel ventilation systems had been flagged as priorities, the repairs lagged. Two ventilation fans in WMATA’s deepest tunnel location were locked out of operation for more than six months awaiting repair.
●Inspections of ventilation systems are documented on paper forms that supervisors must enter into an automated system, a process that requires “two or three weeks” and can stall work orders and reviews of critical information on the condition and performance of fans.
●Managers do not have strong enough assurances regarding the performance or quality of monthly inspections of fans.
●Metro has made “minimal changes” to its ventilation systems even as passenger loads have increased and eight-car trains move through tunnels and stations. Bringing the system fully up to current standards “would likely cost billions of dollars.”
●Metro has trouble keeping maintenance materials in stock. In one example, the shortage of brake pads lasted more than three months and forced the cannibalization of brake pads from out-of-service rail cars and trucks.
●Replacing power cables “has largely stopped” after funding ran out, although after the Jan. 12 incident, a special program to inspect some cables in tunnel sections was announced.
●There is a lot of hurry-up-and-wait at Metro. Maintenance crews calling in to the control center sometimes wait “for hours” for the permission or verification they need for their work. Crews that have only 90 minutes to two hours overnight of actual track time face delays in getting clearances, which erode that limited time and add to their safety worries.
In March, a crew replacing a bar that connects certain cables on the rail wasn’t cleared to get on the work site until 2 a.m. and had to start clearing out by 4 a.m. But the crew had brought the wrong size bar, specialized workers needed for the job were not at the site and there was confusion about whether there was proper planning for the task.
Before new parts and personnel could arrive, and the rail needed to be ready for morning passenger service, the original part went back in and no replacement occurred.