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FTA finds tracks in ‘black condition’ but Metro routinely reclassifies them, keeping them in service

A Metro train derailed just outside the East Falls Church station in July 2016. Tracks with “black-level” defects can cause derailments and other problems. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

For three consecutive months, federal inspectors warned of deteriorating rail ties at Metro’s Braddock Road crossover, a “black-level” defect that calls for tracks be taken out of service, but Metro continued to run Blue and Yellow line trains over the segment as conditions persisted, according to inspection reports from the Federal Transit Administration.

“Only five non-defective ties were observed within 40 feet at [the interlocking]. Black condition,” an FTA inspector wrote Sept. 19, 2017. “Only five non-defective ties were observed within a 40-foot segment of track at [the interlocking]. Black Condition,” an Oct. 12 report noted.

“Five consecutive defective crossties, measuring 162 inches between non-defective ties, were observed at [the interlocking]. Black Condition,” a Nov. 29 inspection report said, summing up a type of track defect that has led to Metro derailments in the past.

Metro said its crews followed up on the FTA inspections and found the tracks were safe to keep in operation amid “ongoing” work, including the repair and replacement of some ties and upgrades to technical components, along with a doubling of inspections along the stretch.

A long-term fix for the Braddock Road interlocking — a point where trains change tracks — was on hold until temperatures rose, and is scheduled for this weekend, Metro said last week. Crews will renew the steel rails, fasteners and studs in the area, the transit agency said.

But Metro’s decision to keep tracks in service for months despite repeated warnings of dangerous conditions highlights a disconnect between FTA inspectors’ assessments and Metro’s response to the federal oversight it has been under since October 2015.

“I can only hope it is not a replay of the same movie we’ve seen way too much,” said Anthony Foxx, the Obama administration’s transportation secretary who had taken the unprecedented step of placing the rail system under federal oversight after its former oversight panel was found woefully inadequate.

Foxx said he did not know why the Metro and FTA findings would differ.

A Washington Post analysis of FTA inspections of Metro in 2017 documented at least 27 instances where federal inspectors noted black-level conditions in the 117-mile rail system, an indication that tracks had deteriorated to the point that trains could not safely run on them. The most recent “black-level” defect was from a November report, the latest round of publicly available FTA inspections. Metro says in 25 of the 27 cases, its workers did not find conditions as severe as those outlined by FTA inspectors.

Inspection of Baltimore subway found 17 of 19 track segments checked were unsafe to operate on

It was an excessive number of black-level defects that prompted Maryland transit officials to order a month-long shutdown of the entire 15.5-mile Baltimore subway last month. Officials found 17 of 19 track segments evaluated in 11 curves were inoperable because of concerns about the angle of the tracks.

Metro said the two defects it agreed with the FTA were “actual” black conditions were both on a stretch of the Orange, Blue and Silver lines outside the Stadium-Armory station that has previously been highlighted as a problem spot.

The remaining 25 cases included 16 instances of loose, defective or non-holding fasteners and a spectrum of issues from wide gauge to wearing of the rails. Ten did not require speed restrictions, Metro said, and of the remaining segments, five were placed under slow-speed restrictions, seven were put under medium speed restrictions and three were repaired overnight, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said.

Metro’s explanation puzzled the FTA, which said the transit authority conducts follow-up inspections to determine the proper course of action for FTA’s findings. Those follow-ups don’t change the initial FTA assessments — made during inspections with Metro officials on site.

“FTA and [Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority] inspectors use the same definitions of track conditions, as found in the WMATA manual. WMATA then conducts follow-up inspections to determine the appropriate response, which they have some discretion to decide,” an FTA spokesman said. “However, those follow-up actions do not change the original finding.”

FTA safety inspectors uncover more track defects that Metro missed

The FTA said it stands by its inspections and the conclusions of its investigators. One possible explanation for the discrepancy, Metro said, is that the transit agency is in the process of updating some aspects of its track inspection manual, including sections on the appropriate responses to certain findings.

Under the FTA oversight, federal track walkers inspect portions of the Metro system multiple times per month alongside Metro crews, and make observations in reports shared with Metro. Although Metro decides how to respond, the FTA has the authority to shut down all or parts of the system if it doesn’t trust Metro’s assessments, the agency said.

“This is not a matter of an ‘us versus them’ dynamic with the FTA,” Stessel said. “When a report of a track defect comes in, WMATA subject-matter experts respond to validate the report, assess the condition and determine appropriate mitigation. Upon further review/analysis with subject-matter experts on site, FTA inspectors will typically defer the final determination/resolution to the agency experts, as we are ultimately responsible for safeguarding the riding public.”

Track defects are logged using a color-coded guide. Defects are rated on a best-to-worst spectrum from green to yellow to red to black. Because of the progressive color-coding, rail experts say, a regularly inspected system should avoid black-level defects. But some contend Metro has a culture that discourages workers from reporting track defects and other problems — and their true severity — for fear of retaliation.

Those concerns were highlighted following a July 2016 derailment outside the East Falls Church stop. In the wake of an investigation into the incident, Metro fired a third of its track inspection department and overhauled the 60-worker unit after officials found a widespread pattern of report falsification and retaliation.

It’s also not the first time FTA inspectors have caught serious track defects that Metro workers missed.

In April 2016, Metro halted rail traffic or slowed trains in 10 locations after federal inspectors discovered track defects that Metro inspectors missed; the defects could have caused derailments and other problems.

Meanwhile, Metro is still investigating a Jan. 15 derailment between Farragut North and Metro Center, which a preliminary report shows was caused by a broken rail.

One-third of Metro’s track inspection department has been fired for falsifying records, Wiedefeld confirms

This also wasn’t the first time Metro downplayed an inspector’s assessment of the dangerous conditions at the Braddock crossover. One of the agency’s own track inspectors warned of severely degraded tracks in the area, only to be rebutted by supervisors who said the tracks were safe, according to two individuals with knowledge of the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the investigation.

The Metro inspector took his complaint to the FTA, federal inspection reports show, and a later FTA inspection validated the worker’s assessment. A March 2016 FTA inspection report noted: “[N]on holding crossties and fasteners permitting both rails to move horizontally and vertically. Both rails could be moved horizontally with human foot pressure.”

The Washington Post review of 2017 reports shows that the defects found by the FTA ranged from concerns about gauge — the width of the tracks — to the condition of crossties, which secure the rails in place, and concerns about the rails themselves.

But the majority concerned fasteners, components that secure the rails in place underground and in some aerial portions of the system.

In one instance that raised alarm with the FTA, but was later downgraded by Metro, FTA crews discovered last March that tracks were not holding in place on an aerial structure in the Grosvenor area.

The “egg shape fasteners are failing,” the FTA inspector observed. “This condition is allowing the rail to float in an unsecure [manner].”

During the year-long SafeTrack program, Metro replaced more than 50,000 crossties and says it is undergoing a similar process with fasteners — a process that is less disruptive and labor-intensive than the one for crossties.

After a year of FTA oversight of Metro, questions about whether safety has improved

“We replaced just over 13,000 fasteners in the past six months, with a similar number planned over the remainder of the fiscal year,” Stessel said.

While SafeTrack’s conclusion in June pointed to progress for agency officials, the discovery of black-level conditions did not trend downward as the year progressed. Twelve of the black-level defects were recorded from September through November, the most recent data available. The FTA said it does not collect data on black-level conditions from other agencies for comparison.

Among the defects noted as black-level conditions in federal reports, but later assessed by Metro to be less severe: a Sept. 13 finding of wide gauge, where the tracks are spaced too far apart support a train. While not always classified as a black condition, wide gauge has been the cause of several derailments, including a 2015 incident outside the Smithsonian Metro station and the July 2016 derailment near East Falls Church.

Metro said it found 58 black conditions in the system last year, including the two it accepted from the FTA findings. Overall, the agency said it reported 295 conditions “resulting in speed restrictions or track being taken out of service” to the FTA last year.