Federal safety workers on Wednesday launched intensive inspections of Metro tracks, including 10 “segments of concern” scattered among all of the transit system’s six lines.
The Federal Transit Administration, which took over safety oversight of the rail system last year, did not describe the severity of its concerns at particular locations, saying they were chosen based on a history of defects, previous incidents or findings in recent months by their inspectors, among other factors.
One area to be examined: a stretch between Metro Center and Federal Triangle where the FTA in February found a gap in the track that could have led to a derailment.
Federal officials described their push to ensure “track integrity” as a “safety blitz,” and they said the effort goes beyond the rails and power cables. Metro’s own track inspectors — and systems for managing them and acting on their findings — are also being scrutinized.
FTA officials said the inspections will not require the system to be shut down and should not impact service unless problems are found that need to be addressed immediately.
Management questions have continued to dog the 40-year-old system, which took the stark step last month of closing completely for one day to catch up with vital safety work. During the shutdown, power cable problems were discovered that mirrored defects that caused last year’s deadly smoke incident near L’Enfant Plaza. The new federal inspections, expected to last through April 13, will also take another look at the 27 areas that required “emergency repairs” following the shutdown.
It also “will assess the condition of the third rail, including the contact rail, supporting insulators, jumper cables, cable connecting boots, and the environment around the cables, including water, debris, and previous evidence of arcing or electrical/fire damage.”
One key area of concern getting FTA attention in the latest inspections is track near the Smithsonian Metro station on the Orange, Blue and Silver lines, federal officials said.
On Aug. 6, 2015, a Blue line train derailed between the Smithsonian and Federal Triangle stations after a wheel fell into in a gap that had opened in the track. It happened at about 5:20 a.m., and the train was not carrying any passengers.
The incident raised many questions, and much of the focus landed on an employee who mistakenly disregarded data from a “Track Geometry Vehicle,” which is supposed to alert safety workers to such track problems. In this case, the warning data was thrown out after it was wrongly interpreted as a false reading.
But that wasn’t the only problem.
Metro also has track walkers who are supposed to traverse the entire system frequently, looking for problems.
And on Aug. 1 and Aug. 5, a track walker had been on the very segment that caused the problems, according to a Metro incident report, which includes an interview with the track inspector.
Question #12: What were the tunnel conditions between Federal Triangle and Smithsonian on August 5th, 2015?
A: The same defects that there have been. Wasn’t nothing standing out.
Question #13: On the August 1st and August 5th inspection walk were there any defects found in the area of track number two Smithsonian?
But within hours of the Aug. 5 inspection, the Blue Line train hit a track problem that threw it off the tracks.
Federal officials last year said Metro must improve the quality of track-inspection audits “to ensure compliance with established maintenance and testing practices, and to monitor missed or incomplete preventive maintenance activities and/or inspections.”
Metro says it is working on that.
In addition, the FTA said Wednesday that it reviewed Metro’s investigation report into the derailment but sent it back to the transit agency because it failed to “assess the root cause” of the track problem that was found.
FTA also said it would be sending its inspectors not only to particular areas of concern, but also to ride along with a “Track Geometry Vehicle” and walk along with track walkers, to examine those personnel and practices first hand. They will review training, supervision and performance of track maintenance personnel, the FTA said.
Federal officials declined to say how many track inspectors would be at work.
In a statement, the FTA said its Metro Safety Oversight team would be “augmented with Federal Railroad Administration track inspectors. This is consistent with [Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx’s] commitment that the Department of Transportation is providing the needed staffing and resources to support the FTA’s temporary safety oversight responsibilities for Metrorail.”
Federal officials said the added inspections would not cause delays, since workers will be able to walk the track between trains and during off hours. But fixing any problems they find could lead to delays.
There are three pieces of its overall “safety blitz.” In addition to looking at “track integrity,” the FTA is also delving into the persistent problem with red-light running and into “rail vehicle securement,” a reference to cars detaching from one another while running, as happened on the Green Line in January.
The FTA said it would “provide a final report on all three components of the safety blitz by early summer.”