As federal regulators continue to monitor Metro’s SafeTrack maintenance work, persistent problems remain among the improvements, reports show.
The Federal Transit Administration released a trove of inspection reports Friday based on hundreds of pages of comments, criticisms and recommendations that they have compiled while shadowing Metro work crews.
Among the recommendations from reports completed in August: The FTA continues to identify safety defects that have gone unaddressed during SafeTrack work and believes Metro’s work crews can use their track time more efficiently.
In an Aug. 15 inspection report, for example, an inspector highlighted defects that had first been pointed out during Surge No. 3, reminding Metro of the “deteriorated tie conditions” she had previously identified close to the Braddock Road station on the Blue and Yellow lines.
“Given that Safe Track had previously worked thru that area and the most recent WMATA derailment . . . I wanted to follow up to see if tie replacement had been performed in the area of the station platform as part of that Safe Track surge,” she wrote. “No tie replacement had been conducted. I walked the entire station platform and noted several ties that were so deteriorated that ballast was pushing thru the top in addition to marginal lateral movement.”
On the same day, that track inspector also was denied access to the Braddock Road station. A station manager told her she needed a Metro escort to gain access to the tracks, even though the inspector was credentialed by the federal government. She ended up taking the most expedient approach: She pulled out her SmarTrip card and used it to enter the station as a passenger so she could inspect the platform.
There were one-off citations: a missing bolt here, a loose insulator anchor there. On multiple occasions, inspectors noticed that the emergency trip-switch boxes — phones that allow emergency communications along the tracks — were missing their covers and exposed to the elements.
The documents outline many of the problems that have plagued Metro for years, including safety hazards during maintenance work, improper installation of equipment, unaddressed rotting rail ties and radio-communications issues.
Even so, the tone of the federal inspectors’ reports from August was significantly more positive than those filed in June and July, during the first three SafeTrack surges.
In those reports, obtained by The Washington Post last month, repair crews and maintenance contractors were faulted for improperly installing bolts, failing to tighten fasteners and installing rails that were found days later to be dangerously wide.
There have been concerns that employees did not know how to use Metro’s track geometry vehicle — which measures the distance between the two rails — and were not using it frequently enough. On an Aug. 19 ride-along with the crew that operates the machine, the inspector noted that five defects were accurately detected and were immediately repaired by a chase crew.
New and improved lighting in the tunnels got rave reviews. Earlier this year, the National Transportation Safety Board determined that dim or broken lights had contributed to the excessive amount of time it took for first responders to reach passengers during last year’s L’Enfant Plaza smoke tragedy. Inspectors said the situation has vastly improved.
“The tunnel lights in most cases were well illuminated, especially on the return,” the inspector wrote. “Operators commented that it was very good and the need to use their high beams had lessened quite a bit; they appreciated the attention to the lighting within the tunnels.”
On Aug. 25, on the Orange Line: “The ties appear to be in good condition. There was no evidence of lateral movement and the hardware for all of the appliances was present.”
On Aug. 29, on the Red Line: “All nuts and bolts appeared to be tight.”
And on Aug. 18, in the Rail Operations Control Center: “FWSO Inspectors also saw evidence that WMATA was in compliance” with FTA’s corrective recommendation. “Inspectors heard evidence that proper radio repeat backs were made by the Rail Traffic Controllers for the vast majority on the communications. Proper radio protocol was heard from Train Operators as well.”
For safety reasons, Metro recently lowered the speed limit in work areas from 35 mph to 10 mph. Train operators largely were paying attention and complying, inspectors wrote.
And then there was this Aug. 29 incident, which indicated that perhaps Metro’s staffers were taking their newfound adherence to “safety culture” a little too far.
The inspection team stood along the tracks, giving the train plenty of room to pass, the inspector described.
But even so, the inspector said, “one train operator . . . stopped her train and claimed that our group did not provide a proper proceed signal all the way until she passed us.”