Federal transit officials said Thursday they have approved a plan by Metro to correct numerous safety-management problems in its subway and bus operations, including poor training of employees, outdated information technology and inadequate staffing and procedures at the rail system’s central control facility.
Metro “must demonstrate a renewed commitment to set a higher standard of safety for its riders and employees,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement, adding, “This plan is an opportunity for [Metro] to make lasting changes and restore public confidence in the system.”
Metro’s 643-page “corrective action plan,” submitted to the Federal Transit Administration this month, was in response to a highly critical FTA report issued in June. The report painted a troubling picture of Metro, saying the agency had failed to follow through on many promised safety improvements after nine people were killed in a 2009 crash involving two Red Line trains near the Fort Totten station.
Of the 54 safety-management problems listed in the FTA report, all but 10 were related to subway operations, particularly problems in the Rail Operations Control Center, or ROCC, the Landover, Md., facility where controllers monitor the system in real time.
Although Metro’s comprehensive plan to fix the problems — 91 “corrective actions” — has passed muster with the FTA, it remains to be determined how long it will take to carry out the plan and what the final cost will be.
“With today’s approval, we will discuss the plan and our next steps to implement the actions with our board of directors at a meeting of the safety committee” Friday, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said in a statement.
The plan “specifically addresses each of the required actions identified in FTA’s Safety Management Inspection,” Stessel said. However, Metro still must “identify the total funding and staffing requirements” and develop work timetables.
The FTA began the system-wide review after a fatal incident Jan. 12 on tracks near the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station. An electrical malfunction filled a tunnel with smoke, which enveloped a stalled train loaded with passengers. Scores of riders were sickened by the noxious fumes and one died of respiratory failure.
As for the ROCC, the review identified shortcomings in virtually all aspects of the center’s operations, including training, management and documentation.
For example, although ROCC employees have “arguably the most challenging job” in the transit agency, the FTA report said, 20 out of 54 authorized staff positions at the facility were vacant at the time of the review. Although supervisors struggle to fill all shifts, employees sometimes work six or seven 12-hour days in a week, according to the report.
Among an array of other safety-related problems — in the ROCC and elsewhere in the rail system — the FTA cited excessive noise and distractions in the control center, which contributes to dangerous mistakes by employees; an antiquated computer system that makes accurate record-keeping difficult; a pressing need for infrastructure maintenance; and upgrades in numerous parts of the subway.
The Jan. 12 smoke incident, and a spate of disruptive subway breakdowns in recent months, have left the Washington area’s congressional delegation angry and frustrated, as members try to prevent a cut in federal funding for the beleaguered transit agency.
Some delegation members used Thursday’s announcement by the FTA as an opportunity to renew their demands for Metro’s board of directors to hire a new general manager. The top job has been filled on an interim basis since January, while the board struggles to reach agreement on a replacement for retired chief executive Richard Sarles.
“Today’s news is a step in the right direction for improving Metro, and the next step is to make sure that each and every action item is implemented, maintained, and seen through to completion,” Virginia senators Timothy M. Kaine (D) and Mark R. Warner (D) said in a joint statement. They added, “Metro desperately needs strong new leadership to implement safety improvements, and we will continue to push for that process to conclude.”
D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) agreed.
Referring to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, Norton said: “Following FTA’s tough safety report, its approval of WMATA’s corrective action plan should begin a critical period to renew our transit system. But to really fix Metro, WMATA must get a new general manager quickly to get this job done.”
In approving the corrective action plan, the FTA said it will “closely track and monitor” Metro’s progress once work begins.
“It is critical that WMATA effectively implement its corrective action plan,” said acting FTA administrator Therese W. McMillan.
“And on a broader scale, to truly manage its safety risk on an ongoing basis,” McMillan said, “WMATA must demonstrate strong and consistent leadership, combined with a strong safety culture throughout its organization.”