The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Federal reports reveal concerns with quality of Metro’s SafeTrack repairs

Metro workers continue repairs on the rails of the Orange and Silver lines’ tracks July 22, 2016, in Ballston. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Federal inspection reports for the first three Metro SafeTrack surges suggest that officials with the Federal Transit Administration are concerned that the work is not being performed as effectively as possible and that problems are being missed.

In more than 30 reports filed by FTA inspectors and obtained through a public records request, regulators outlined recurring concerns with how the ambitious maintenance push is being executed. The inspection reports reviewed covered June 4 to July 11 and involved work on the Orange, Silver, Blue and Yellow lines.

In one instance during Surge No. 3 — which focused on the Blue and Yellow line tracks between the Reagan National Airport and Braddock Road stations — an inspector noted an “excessive amount of loose fasteners” and had concerns about grout pads that were in “very poor” condition.

In one spot, the inspector noted, three consecutive fasteners were loose, which could pose a particularly high safety risk because they could affect track stability. He also was worried to see that anchor bolts had been installed on fasteners without grout pads. Fasteners hold the steel tracks in place and sit atop grout pads. Anchor bolts connect the fasteners to grout pads and the concrete foundation underneath.

The inspector noted that the fasteners were “marked for renewal” but that their replacement was not scheduled to be done during the surge, according to Metro’s outline of the project’s parameters. The inspector described this as “poor coordination.”

Metro announced a finalized plan to fix its infrastructure, which will disrupt service for hundreds of thousands of commuters. This is how the plan will work. (Video: Jenny Starrs, Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post, Photo: GARY CAMERON/The Washington Post)

The inspector wrote: “Fastener, grout, and anchor bolt replacement completed in areas of less priority, when areas of high priority [are] not addressed.”

Weeks after SafeTrack Surge No. 3, track problem reported near National Airport

Last week, Metro had to shut down one side of the tracks at National Airport during the evening rush because of a “track problem” — loose fasteners.

Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said Wednesday that conditions such as loose fasteners and defective stud bolts are problems that Metro is working to correct throughout the SafeTrack process.

“We’ve learned something every time we’ve done one of these. I wish every time we did something, it was 100 percent,” Wiedefeld said. But he added that Metro’s own inspectors are identifying many of the same issues and pointing them out to the project manager.

“At first, it was sort of a gotcha mentality — not from FTA but from our people,” Wiedefeld said. “Now they’re waiting until [workers] say they’re done, then they come in and look at it. Then they sit down with the project manager and say, ‘Here’s all the things that we found.’ Then they go back and look at it.”

In July, when the FTA released a summary of inspection defects for Surges 1 and 2, Metro spokeswoman Morgan Dye said that "surges are just one aspect of the overall SafeTrack program, and there is a great deal of maintenance work occurring across the system during weekend, evening and overnight hours."

The FTA, which assumed safety oversight of Metro nearly a year ago, has been monitoring SafeTrack, conducting frequent inspections to ensure the work is being performed to the agency’s expectations.

Hammering out the relationship between federal regulators and Metro has been push-and-pull, said Carol Carmody, a federally appointed member of the Metro board who chairs the board’s safety committee.

“I think both sides have been learning from the experience,” Carmody said. “I think there have been sometimes some differences in opinion, but I have a sense that things are working pretty well now.”

In total, FTA inspectors noted 130 defects during the first three maintenance surges, although many of those were relatively minor issues.

SafeTrack workers violated safety standards in dozens of instances, FTA says

And, not all the inspections were negative. In some, inspectors praised Metro's "significant progress" in replacing interlockings, critical junctures where trains cross from one set of tracks to another.

In other cases, the praise bordered on the effusive: “Great job spreading out along the platform to assist passengers,” one inspector wrote in a caption accompanying a photo of a packed platform at the Ballston station. Another inspector reported witnessing “one of [the] best safety briefings.”

The inspection reports offer a picture of the still-evolving relationship between the FTA and Metro — at times serious and constructive, at times encouraging, and at times nitpicky and finger-wagging.

For example, the FTA criticized Metro at the beginning of the first surge because employees wearing purple vests did not have a reflective “X” on the back of the garments. In another case, they chided the agency for forgetting to announce a special “safety rule of the day” during the regular safety briefing.

Metro also was knocked for failing to have enough portable restrooms in the construction zone — although those restrooms were delivered to the work site hours later.

Still, there were serious safety concerns.

After the end of Surge No. 1, the track geometry vehicle — a specialized rail car used to measure the width between tracks and other technical parameters — was used to inspect tracks between East Falls Church and Ballston and detected 12 narrow-gauge defects. Two were sufficiently serious for the tracks to be taken out of service immediately. It also identified several instances of excessive elevation on the tracks.

“The significance of these defective items, as noted by [FTA inspectors] is that they were created and/or built into the track structure by the contractor performing the Safe Track maintenance work within these areas,” the inspector wrote.

Metro’s track inspection program is a mess, and these four graphics show why

But inspectors also gave an indication that Metro employees recognize the new rigor demanded of them. Accompanying a crew operating the track geometry vehicle, one inspector reported that workers told him that previously, they were able to complete an entire track inspection in one outing. Now, they are required to move much more slowly: It can take as many as four trips on the tracks to complete an entire inspection.

During Surge No. 2 — a 16-day project targeting the tracks between Eastern Market and Benning Road and Minnesota Avenue stations — inspectors pinpointed the same problem again and again: improperly installed stud bolts.

“Almost every stud bolt that has been installed on the right rail is greater than 3 [inches] high from the base of the rail,” an FTA inspector wrote June 26. “[Our] concern is the amount of penetration of the stud bolt in the [plinth].”

The significance: If three inches of the bolt is sticking out of the foundation, the inspector indicated, it’s not difficult to guess that the bolt has not been sunk deep enough.

Behind the scenes of SafeTrack: Long shifts, scorching heat, unexpected kinks

Then, on June 30, inspectors “noted many stud bolts that were installed improperly on the aerial structure.” They “also noted this issue sporadically throughout the work zone, in both new and old installations of stud bolts.”

And again, on July 3, the last day of the surge: “While the [federal inspection] team observed many instances of poor installation of stud bolts in both existing and new installations, the team did not note any track conditions warranting a speed restriction or greater required protection,” the inspector wrote. “WMATA must do more to ensure that all installations are made to the required depth.”

And finally, on July 8, after the project ended: “Numerous stud bolts exceeded the 3-inch height from the base of the rail,” the inspector wrote, adding that some had been spray-painted to indicate that they needed attention. “Many were loose.”

How loose? “At least six fasteners were loose enough to slide a ruler under.” And two fasteners did not have any bolts at all.

The reports also included myriad complaints familiar to those who follow Metro’s daily woes: Clogged drains. A loose third-rail insulator. A front flagman observed “in a sleeping position.”

Still, there were reasons for riders to be heartened: One inspector pointed to a stretch of tracks near National Airport that had been repaired before being planned under the SafeTrack schedule.

The reason?

“Three grout pads and corresponding insulators were replaced on Track #1 along the platform,” the inspector wrote. “This was in response to a passenger complaint made via Twitter.”

Faiz Siddiqui contributed to this report.