A damning federal report on systemic problems with track maintenance at Metro has shaken the confidence of the agency’s board members, who have received little from leadership by way of explanation and some of whom believe the Federal Transit Administration should have forced Metro to address problems that put riders at risk.
Most of all, board members have questions: Who approved the decision to delay repairing a stretch of track that later caused a derailment? Why didn’t Metro officials communicate their inability to complete inspections in a regular, timely manner?
And what happened to the new era of “safety before service” heralded by the arrival late last year of General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld?
On Tuesday, 11 days after a train carrying 75 passengers derailed at East Falls Church, Metro declined to answer questions related to the crash investigation or make Wiedefeld available for an interview on the findings of reports released by FTA and the National Transportation Safety Board.
“As he has demonstrated, Paul is committed to holding people accountable. In order to do that, the investigations must be thorough and fact based — and that does take time,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said in a statement.
Some of the questions were not directly related to the derailment. The agency, for example, declined to say whether it has beefed up its track inspection regimen after federal officials pointed out that inspections were being carried out once monthly instead of twice weekly as prescribed in Metro’s guidelines. Metro also declined to say whether it has inspected track widths systemwide since the derailment. The derailment was caused by a defect known as “wide gauge,” in which the two sides of the tracks are too far apart and cause the wheels to lose contact with the rails.
Following the July 29 incident, Metro said it would inspect all interlockings that would be used heavily during SafeTrack. The FTA said Metro has made it clear to federal officials that it will follow a “robust” inspection regimen in areas surrounding SafeTrack going forward.
Federal officials also noted that the specialized vehicle Metro uses to identify track defects is out of service. The transit agency declined to say when the vehicle will be working again, or specify what was wrong with it or what is being used to inspect tracks in its absence.
Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans said he is concerned about the lack of information about how, and when, Metro plans to ramp up the inspection schedule. He said he expects to get some of those answers Wednesday, when he is scheduled to meet with Wiedefeld and new members of his executive team, all of whom started their jobs in recent weeks: chief safety officer Patrick Lavin, chief operating officer Joseph Leader and general counsel Patricia Lee.
“What is the state of the track system out there? It’s still a wreck,” Evans said Tuesday. “That’s the ongoing question I have.”
Still, he said, Wiedefeld’s new high-level staff may yet instill major changes for a quick turnaround.
“We’re still building this team to address these problems,” Evans said.
The Federal Transit Administration’s report, released Monday, focuses on the confusing regulations, inconsistent procedures, and lack of a regular schedule or robust training that hinders Metro’s ability to efficiently and reliably perform inspections and conduct repairs on the tracks.
It’s the first in a series of deep dives that the regulatory agency plans to release by the end of the summer, all aimed at addressing systemic issues within Metro: One will look at red signal violations, and another will address the traction power electrification system.
Among the most notable conclusions of the report released Monday: FTA staff members had pushed for Metro to include an interlocking close to East Falls Church station in its SafeTrack parameters, but Metro decided to wait on those repairs to continue operating single-tracking throughout the safety “surge.” Degraded tracks at that interlocking caused the July 29 derailment of two cars of a Silver Line train.
Repairs along the stretch of the track where the derailment occurred — between East Falls Church and Ballston — had originally been scheduled to take place later this year, during a 23-day period in November and December. After the FTA forced Metro to alter the schedule, SafeTrack coordinators moved the dates for that work on the Orange and Silver lines so that they would be completed sooner, splitting it between two safety surges in June and July. The FTA signed off on the final plan.
Some board members asked why, if the FTA could force Metro to significantly change its SafeTrack schedule, it couldn’t have forced Metro to include the dilapidated tracks in the plan.
But federal officials blamed the derailment squarely on Metro.
Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority “is in charge of inspecting its track, with FTA operating in an oversight capacity,” an FTA spokesman said in a statement Tuesday. “That the crossover failure was not found, by WMATA, prior to the July 29, 2016 derailment further illustrates exactly what the new FTA report on track integrity suggests is a systemic problem: Metro has inspection and safety rules that it does not consistently follow.”
The agency pointed to the 12 corrective actions it issued as a way it will compel Metro to address “systemic deficiencies in the inspection, maintenance and repair of track.”
“FTA will continue to monitor WMATA’s efforts to ensure this is done not only in surge areas, but systemwide,” it said.
But Metro Board member Michael Goldman said FTA isn’t blame-free.
“We’ve been at this with the FTA for a year, and we still don’t seem to be getting the practices and protocol and manuals in place so we can run a safe and reliable railroad,” he said. “I don’t know how much of this is that the FTA is being sufficiently on [Metro’s] backs . . . but I’m not seeing this as the FTA has done a great job about this. I’m seeing this more as a breakdown on both sides.”
The revelations in the FTA report may have long-term impacts on the future of the year-long SafeTrack program, and other issues affecting Metro.
In recent weeks, District officials have fought a proposal to make a moratorium on late-night service permanent. But their battle to have the service restored at the conclusion of SafeTrack may be hampered by conclusions reached by the FTA, which in its report says that track workers do not have enough uninterrupted time on the tracks to properly conduct inspections.
In the report, FTA officials paint a picture of just how challenging it can be for workers tasked with scrutinizing miles of underground track for signs of imminent problems or misalignment.
“Visibility is poor; installed tunnel lighting is often dim or obscured by dust,” the FTA wrote about the challenges of underground inspections. “Direct fixation track, characteristic of underground sections, is more complicated to inspect. The underground corridors in the Metrorail system typically have higher train frequencies and elevated catwalks, which makes clearing the track a more arduous process.”
Evans said he agrees that Metro workers need more time on the tracks, especially in light of the FTA report. Still, he said, that time may not necessarily have to come at the end of a weekend night. Maybe an interruption in mid-afternoon service on Sundays would be better, he suggested.
“We have to get creative,” Evans said. “And Metro’s not good at being creative.”