Many of the problems identified in the audit date back decades and were cited as contributing factors in the 2009 Red Line crash near Fort Totten that killed nine and the 2015 Yellow Line smoke incident outside L’Enfant Plaza that resulted in the death of one rider.
“We should not overlook the fact that the problems of the ROCC are derived in part from how [Metro] is organized, meaning the region’s work on governance is not finished,” said Horner, who represents the federal government on the panel. “The fact that many of the problems identified in the report have persisted for a decade suggests to me that management and the board actually don’t possess the tools needed to address fundamental problems in a timely manner.”
Horner, whose comments came at the panel’s regularly scheduled meeting, said he is working on a plan that would include all the jurisdictions that subsidize Metro’s operations in remaking its leadership structure.
In the meantime, he told Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld to consider shutting down the rail system, as he did in 2016, to address what the commission described as the ROCC’s “toxic workplace.”
In March 2016, Wiedefeld took the unprecedented step of ordering a 24-hour shutdown of the entire rail system to conduct emergency inspections of electric cables. Officials then said they acted because they feared for the safety of passengers.
Federal transportation officials threatened to take similar action several times after repeated safety lapses.
“I urge you to take radical action to fix the ROCC such as you took when you closed down the rail system in 2016 to assure public safety,” Horner said. “You might consider a partial or total stand down of the system while the ROCC is reconstituted on an expedited basis.”
“The situations then and now are not dissimilar,” he said.
Wiedefeld, who was just a few months into the job when he took the action in 2016, responded by saying management is committed to reforming the ROCC.
“I believe we will get there,” Wiedefeld said. “But you raised some very interesting points, which is some of these things may require doing things institutionally different than we’ve done in the past.”
Metro board vice chair Stephanie Gidigbi said she’s not sure the system needs to be shut down to change the ROCC culture. “Culture change takes time and everyone needs to be held accountable to ensure we get through this.”
The 50-page WMSC audit highlighted 21 safety issues Metro needs to fix or improve, many of which had been previously cited by the National Transportation Safety Board or the Federal Transit Administration. The transit agency has 45 days to begin addressing the problems.
The report described a “toxic workplace” where employees are bullied, racially and sexually harassed, and told by managers to ignore authorities and operating procedures. It said the center is understaffed and controllers are fatigued from working too many hours.
The audit said that Lisa Woodruff, senior vice president for rail services, “told controllers not to talk to the [safety commission], to resist required corrective actions, and to paint a rosy picture of the ROCC for an internal Metrorail transformation team.” Top managers were cited repeatedly in the audit as undermining the commission and safety efforts.
Metro was given an early look at the audit last month and allowed to respond, but it wasn’t until Wednesday — after blistering criticism from some of the region’s elected officials, including Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) — that Woodruff was reassigned pending an outside investigation of the allegations.
“In terms of race, sexual harassment, any type of harassment is unacceptable in the agency,” Wiedefeld told board members Thursday. “And clearly, if directions were given not to be as open and transparent in anything that the safety commission is looking at is unacceptable, as well. But we are going to find out what happened there first before we take any action on those.”
In July, after several relatively minor track mishaps highlighted recurring ROCC communication failures, ROCC Director Deltrin Harris was replaced with an interim manager. The agency has said it is conducting a nationwide search for a replacement.
Jayme Johnson, who had recently been hired as director of strategies, was moved into the ROCC and named director of change management, charged with overhauling the ROCC’s culture. Johnson outlined the progress for board members Thursday, saying he is working to “reset the room” and clear up overlapping and confusing lines of supervision while working with the nearly 100 ROCC employees one-on-one.
“We are moving forward aggressively to make progress,” Johnson said. “We know there are significant challenges to address.”
Board members expressed impatience with the progress, and some said they will take a more hands-on approach to monitoring the center.
“I just want to say on behalf of the board and myself personally, that if anyone is an ROCC employee who has been the victim of sexual or racial harassment by anyone in the ROCC and management, please come forward,” Metro second vice chair Michael Goldman said. “I would encourage anyone to come forward and provide that information to our inspector general so we can get to the bottom of this and address these issues and root them out from top to bottom of the operation right now.”
Meanwhile, the board was briefed on another crisis facing the agency: a looming budget deficit.
Hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid that has propped up the transit system during the pandemic is set to run out by year’s end, creating a projected $212 million deficit that requires the board to consider layoffs and service cuts. The cuts would take effect in January, provided more federal aid isn’t forthcoming.
“These are painful decisions but we make them in support of the system, in support of ultimately we’ll be building back our service and building back our customer base on both bus and rail,” board member and D.C. transportation director Jeff Marootian said.
Among the cuts proposed by Wiedefeld are closing the system two hours earlier — at 9 p.m. — Sunday through Thursday. About $139 million could be saved through service adjustments, including delaying the opening of Phase 2 of the Silver Line until July 1, and reducing trains and operators by shortening some trips. More than 1,700 non-unionized employees could be laid off.
Some construction projects would be postponed — though board members were adamant about not putting off any maintenance that might jeopardize the hundreds of millions spent on track and station improvements in recent years to boost safety.
Metrobus service would be least impacted because many of its riders have no other transportation options. Overall, Metro officials said, transit services would shrink by about 25 percent.
Board members called the cuts painful, but said Metro had little choice. Members who represent Maryland and Virginia, however, criticized a recommendation to restore the use of “turnbacks,” which create longer waits for riders in the suburbs. Montgomery County officials and riders for years fought a turnback where half the Red Line trains headed toward Glenmont would go only to Silver Spring before turning around. The practice was discontinued in 2019.
Wiedefeld said the areas served with fewer trains in Maryland have ridership levels that have decreased by 20,000 a day. But multiple board members said the plan wasn’t equitable, and Goldman, who represents Maryland, said he would vote against the plan next week if the turnbacks remained. He proposed adding a half-minute to overall wait times instead.
“A restoration of those turnbacks would be a bitter pill,” he said.
Board member and Loudoun County Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau, who supports the use of turnbacks, said: “If there was ever a moment to not be overly parochial in our interests it’s this one.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly implied that Metro board member and Loudoun County Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau opposed truncating the trips of some trains on a line. Letourneau supports the use of such action.