Metro halted rail traffic or slowed train speeds at 10 locations in April after federal inspectors found track defects that could have caused derailments and other problems, according to federal safety reports.
All of the tracks are now back in normal use after repairs were made, officials said. But the documents, obtained by The Washington Post, disclose new examples of problems that Metro overlooked until the Federal Transit Administration took over safety oversight of the agency in October.
On April 10, for example, federal safety inspectors checking the system as part of a “safety blitz” found incorrectly fastened rails along more than 38 feet of pocket track on an aerial structure east of the Stadium-Armory Metro station at a junction of the Orange, Blue and Silver lines.
Metro inspectors had overlooked the defect — which could cause a derailment — in nine visual inspections in the preceding month, federal officials said. A pocket track is a stretch of rail where trains can be parked off the main line.
Other problems described in the reports or by federal officials included the following:
●Most Metro employees “knowingly” ignore requirements for setting handbrakes on rail cars in the yard, thus increasing the risk of unintended train movements.
●Metro trains have run red lights five times since the FTA took over safety oversight, and the FTA called such overruns “a pervasive and serious problem.”
●The total number of safety defects identified by the FTA has tripled, to 680, since an interim report in mid-April, mainly because of problems found during the “blitz” begun in March.
●The FTA has begun 47 safety investigations since October, including of a derailment Wednesday in the Shady Grove rail yard and of the recent smoke incidents along the Red Line.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the federal reports offer new evidence of the need for Metro to take aggressive steps to repair deteriorating equipment and intensify the commitment to safety among managers and workers. One document is a 25-page PowerPoint briefing and the other is a five-page fact sheet.
Asked in an interview why Metro had not identified the track defects before the FTA review, Foxx answered simply, “They weren’t looking.”
He continued: “Our teams have been in that system for several months, but really the rate of inspections in these months has been more than they’ve had for quite some time. That in itself is troubling.”
Asked whether Metro was simply not doing the inspections, or instead was failing to do them thoroughly, Foxx answered, “Yes” — implying that both were true.
Metro said it addressed all of the track defects identified by the FTA within 24 hours or less.
“We are working side by side with FTA on its safety inspections and have taken immediate action to address all items that are safety critical,” Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said.
Foxx’s remarks Friday came days before the expected release of the National Transportation Safety Board’s final report into the Jan. 12, 2015, smoke incident at L’Enfant Plaza that killed one person and sickened scores of others.
Over the past year, Metro’s leaders have faced withering criticism over their stewardship of the agency, but Foxx also has faced questions about his decision to give the FTA responsibility for overseeing Metro’s rail safety.
Last fall, NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart urged Foxx to give primary responsibility for Metro’s safety to the Federal Railroad Administration, which has a long history of overseeing safety of the nation’s railroads.
But Foxx has maintained that the FTA is better suited for the task, despite its relative inexperience with safety oversight.
Foxx’s comments — together with his appointment Thursday of three experienced safety officials to Metro’s board — appeared designed to highlight his commitment to Metro safety prior to the release of the NTSB report.
He also said he had no desire to rehash past disagreements, emphasizing that the FTA team includes personnel from many Transportation Department agencies, including the FRA.
“I think this issue is so urgent that we need to get past fighting the last war,” Foxx said.
In the track-safety portion of the blitz, federal inspectors found problems at three locations that qualified as “black conditions” — meaning the track could not be used until repairs were made.
In addition to the junction near the Stadium-Armory station, they found that the rails were too far apart in five spots in the West Falls Church and Alexandria rail yards.
Speed restrictions — lowering the maximum speed to 15 miles per hour, according to federal officials — were imposed after problems were found at or near six stations: West Hyattsville, Wiehle-Reston, Fort Totten, Silver Spring, Mount Vernon Square and Suitland. They also were found in the Branch Avenue rail yard.
The problems ranged from broken bolts and defective rail ties to major engine burns on the track.
The FTA is at odds with Metro over whether it is necessary to set at least two handbrakes for six-car or eight-car trains when the trains are temporarily out of service, such as when they are parked in a rail yard overnight.
Metro rules provide for such handbrakes to be set — a process that requires about two to three minutes per brake — in emergency situations or when trains are in “storage.” But most Metro employees think that overnight parking does not qualify as storage, which they view as something that happens over a longer term.
The FTA said it found that practice “unacceptable” because of the risk that trains could roll around in a yard and cause an accident.
“It’s very important in railroading and transit to properly secure equipment,” an FTA safety official said.
Metro said the practice will be reviewed by the agency’s newly appointed chief safety officer, who starts May 9.
The FTA called red-light overruns “a significant safety concern” and said Metro was “not sufficiently engaged with monitoring its front-line employees” to ensure that trains stop when they’re supposed to.
It also said Metro train operators “consistently feel pressure to rush through routes” — a clear sign that Metro is placing a higher priority on meeting schedules than ensuring safety.
Metro said its new safety officer will review the red-light issue and added, “In the meantime, a number of steps have already been taken to mitigate red-signal incidents including changes in operating procedures, safety stand-downs, signage and additional training.”
The safety blitz uncovered far more defects than the FTA identified in the initial four months of its oversight.
In mid-April, acting FTA administrator Carolyn Flowers told a congressional hearing that the FTA had found 229 defects and urged 66 remedial actions.
As of Tuesday, the numbers had leapt to 680 defects and 409 open-remedial actions.
The defects include such shortcomings as defective ties, expired fire extinguishers and failure of train operators to wait three seconds before opening doors at stations.
The remedial actions include steps as minor as replacing a nonfunctioning lightbulb in a tunnel and as major as retraining a train operator.
The new safety investigations launched by the FTA include the fire-smoke incident March 14 at the McPherson Square station and a red-signal overrun Feb. 3 at the Smithsonian station.
Foxx demurred when asked whether Metro’s safety problems were worse than other transit systems, saying he didn’t “want to get into comparisons.”
He said a lack of investment and overdue maintenance plagued systems throughout the country, but he said that didn’t excuse Metro.
“It is a significant problem, but that should not take anybody off the hook with this issue” with Metro, Foxx said.