A new Federal Transit Administration report Monday blasted Metro’s track inspection and repair protocol for “systemic safety deficiencies,” citing last month’s derailment of two rail cars as an example of how the agency continues to prioritize service over safety.
The FTA, charged with providing safety oversight of Metro’s rail system, called for 12 corrective actions the transit agency must take to overhaul its track maintenance program, such as hiring more track inspectors and revamping the training program for repair workers.
The 36-page report issued Monday resulted from months of investigations into Metro’s track maintenance practices. Among the offenses cited by the FTA in the report: Metro officials knew of problems just outside the East Falls Church station, the location of the July 29 derailment, but they did not shut down the section of track because they needed it for single-tracking as part of SafeTrack surges involving the Orange and Silver lines.
“I’m very, very disappointed in reading this report of Metro’s complete lack of response over the years to this type of deterioration,” said Jack Evans, chairman of Metro’s board. “What have people been doing?”
He continued: “I’m worried that the end of SafeTrack is not going to get us a whole lot further along than we are. We’ll fix the whole 15 worst parts of track, but the rest of the track’s a mess anyway.”
Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said that the agency “is working on a number of these corrective actions and will meet the FTA’s deadline for all recommendations.” Metro has 30 days to respond to the report and 60 days to come up with a plan to execute the prescribed actions.
The report is a sizable achievement for the FTA, which has been the subject of significant second-guessing from the National Transportation Safety Board and members of Congress about whether it has the regulatory muscle or the know-how to take on safety oversight of Metro’s rail operations.
In a statement, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx lauded the FTA’s “vigorous oversight,” although some Metro board members said the FTA should have acted earlier to prevent problems that put passengers at risk.
Metro officials knew about the issues with a mechanism called an interlocking where the July 29 derailment occurred, but the track was not taken out of service because it was used as a transfer point for trains during SafeTrack, the FTA said, adding that “these conditions clearly exceeded allowable safety parameters.”
SafeTrack, Metro’s year-long maintenance blitz, is aimed at correcting decades of neglect and helping restore the system to what is known in the industry as a “state of good repair.” It includes 15 safety “surges” involving sections of track on several rail lines.
The initial SafeTrack plan was revised after the FTA found several issues that it said needed to be added or expedited.
FTA officials “encouraged [the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority] to include this track in its SafeTrack program, and specifically to prioritize work between East Falls Church to Ballston, as one of the first three SafeTrack surges,” the agency said in its report. “The particular interlocking involved in the derailment was not part of this initial surge because it was used to support single tracking operations.”
The report is a blow to Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld, who was responsible for conceiving, planning and executing the SafeTrack maintenance program — including the parameters of what stretches of track were left out of the schedule.
Board members sought to ascertain who might have made the decision to delay work related to the worn interlocking near the East Falls Church station.
“It was a bad decision. If we’re talking about safety first, we have to demonstrate that,” board member Corbett A. Price said. “I don’t care if it was used to support SafeTrack. We cannot do that.”
Price said he supports Wiedefeld’s effort to restore the system to a state of good repair. But the repeated safety lapses demand that Metro fill its lower rungs with employees who adhere to his philosophy. The board had already called an emergency meeting for Aug. 25 to examine the recent spate of safety incidents, including cases of train operators running red-light signals, and Price said he wants comprehensive answers from Wiedefeld and others.
“The honeymoon will be over fairly quickly as a result of this,” he said.
Wiedefeld took over at the agency in November.
After the July 29 derailment, Metro was able to conduct comprehensive repairs on the stretch of track while that segment of the Silver Line was shut down over the weekend for the investigation and the removal of the derailed cars.
“It obviously only took a weekend of shutting the track down to accomplish the needed repairs. It’s hard for me to believe that if [Wiedefeld] knew the tracks were in this bad shape, he wouldn’t have done it,” Metro board member Michael Goldman said. “I think we have to explore whether or not that was a conscious decision. . . . I’ve got to believe that the real state of these tracks at the low level was not percolating up.”
Metro says the derailment was caused by an issue called “wide gauge,” in which the tracks expand too far apart to support a moving train. The NTSB, in a limited investigation, said that, because of worn rail ties, trains in the area were essentially running on 30 feet of unsupported track.
In its report, the FTA also issued a scathing analysis of Metro’s track inspections, finding that the agency’s track maintenance program doesn’t allow inspectors enough time to make needed fixes and fails to account for variances in track types, environments and volume of train traffic.
It’s an assessment that buoys the ongoing complaints of representatives of Metro’s primary union, the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, that workers are unable to do optimal work because they’re too rushed and overtaxed by supervisors.
“Today’s report is alarming, but not surprising,” Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) said in a statement. “Metro’s safety culture is lacking. The WMATA rank-and-file workforce has taken much of the blame for recent safety lapses, and while employees should and have been held accountable, that accountability must extend throughout the chain of command.”
The FTA said Metro’s maintenance manual “contains outdated references, confusing and conflicting information on track standards and requirements and does not clearly specify minimum safety standards.”
Federal investigators also said Metro fails to properly supervise its track workers, fails to use the information it gleans to make better maintenance decisions, and allowed a “gushing” leak and plugged-up and muddy drains to go unnoticed or unfixed.
Additionally, investigators found several places where the rails that carry the trains were not sufficiently anchored to the concrete beneath them. In four stretches of track, rail fasteners — used to secure the running rail to the concrete — were too far apart. The report identified one stretch of rail where there was “456 inches (21 feet) between effective fasteners,” nearly four times what’s allowed for safety reasons.
“In the course of one month, this area would have been inspected, at a minimum, nine times, yet this condition was not identified or addressed,” the FTA wrote.
Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said he remains supportive of Wiedefeld’s efforts but is frustrated by the depth of the problems revealed by the FTA.
“This all stems back to the systematic and managerial problems that have existed for many years,” Layne said. “If we could write another report to make this go away, it would go away. . . . The only people who can make this go away are the management at WMATA.”
Layne said that while management is trying, the question remains “whether or not the hole is too big.” He said the report underscores a profound problem: Whether it’s improper training or supervision or something else, “they don’t have people in place that understand the core operations of that railroad.”
In the accompanying safety directive, the FTA outlined 12 specific required actions. They include developing additional training and certification for track inspections, establishing a new track inspection schedule, revising the inspection manual, and developing formal procedures for reporting and prioritizing issues with tracks that need immediate attention.
The FTA also wants Metro to hire additional personnel or outside contractors to conduct and oversee track inspections — a costly prospect that comes as Metro officials begin to grapple with paying for 10 months of SafeTrack maintenance work and face the prospect of begging for more operating money from local jurisdictions and the federal government.
“I would hope that the general manager will come forward and actually break this down as to what the cost will be,” Goldman said, though he added that he did not believe that the cost of additional inspectors would be significant in comparison with the size of Metro’s total budget.
Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) said that it was “appalling” to learn of more safety-related problems at Metro.
“It is damning that the FTA had already identified track problems and highlighted their concerns to Metro about the area outside the East Falls Church,” Comstock said in a statement. “The fact that these issues persist is again the symptom of a lack of safety culture at the agency.”
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) seconded her calls for a greater adherence to safety regulations.
“Standards, however rigorous, are only as good as their enforcement,” Connolly said. “It’s taken years for Metro’s safety culture to sink so low, and reversing that mediocrity will take time and determination from Metro’s leadership and frontline personnel.”
Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said Metro’s failure to comply with established maintenance standards and procedures indicates just how deep-seated the agency’s problems are.
“It reinforces for us the need for General Manager Wiedefeld’s strong management and leadership. But we also believe it’s going to require every single employee, both management and line, to take a hard look at what’s going wrong in the structure, culture, and relationships within the organization,” he said.
Michael Laris and Luz Lazo contributed to this report.