It was about this time last year that Metro board members gathered after a worrisome derailment, demanding answers from the agency’s leaders in light of a series of damning federal reports that questioned the safety of the system.
By the end of the meeting, board members had expressed their profound dissatisfaction with the lack of answers and the agency’s leadership. Hours later, Metro’s chief safety officer resigned.
Thursday’s emergency board meeting was deja-vu all over again — except for the outcome. At the end, board members were cautiously optimistic, largely because of General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld’s most recent hires: Chief Operating Officer Joseph Leader and Chief Safety Officer Patrick Lavin. Leader and Lavin, both alums of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, fielded the bulk of the board’s questions.
“Night and day,” said board member Malcolm Augustine, who represents Maryland and Prince George’s County, adding that it was like the “exact same meeting” with new players and a key difference: tone. “There was ownership from all three people.”
Leif A. Dormsjo, a D.C. member, said: “I think they have the right philosophy, and that’s the biggest thing I’ve noticed that’s different from the last year. These guys are not running away from the problems. They seem to be running toward them.”
The 21/2-hour meeting covered a wide range of topics — red-signal violations, safety culture, a potential criminal investigation — but most of the questions focused on the July 29 derailment at East Falls Church and federal regulators’ reports suggesting that inspectors and maintenance workers had missed opportunities to catch the track defect.
Wiedefeld, Lavin and Leader sought first to allay immediate concerns of board members about any imminent dangers on the tracks.
The derailment took place at an interlocking, a point where trains change tracks. Directly after the incident, Leader said, all the interlockings in the system were inspected closely. Staffers were brought in from other departments — specifically, maintenance and construction supervisors — to assist and offer “a fresh pair of eyes.”
Additionally, Leader said, officials also are conducting additional inspections at the areas where tracks curve sharply — spots that can put extra stress on the infrastructure and cause a similar “wide gauge” defect that was linked to the July 29 incident. Those inspections are scheduled to be concluded by the end of the month.
“By the end of this month, we should be in a situation where we should be able to say, this won’t happen again?” asked Metro board Chairman Jack Evans.
Wiedefeld said yes.
Additionally, Leader said he is looking to eliminate Metro’s reliance on gauge rods, beams used as a temporary means of holding tracks in place to help prevent the “wide gauge” spreading of the tracks. It is a Band-Aid fix that Metro has come to rely on for excessive periods, Leader said.
“I didn’t feel gauge rods were getting the attention they needed,” Leader said. “We’ve now made that a priority.”
Even so, Lavin acknowledged — as had been noted by the National Transportation Safety Board — that problems with the stretch of track involved in the derailment had likely been known as far back as 2009.
He outlined the dates of the recent inspections of the area where the July 29 derailment occurred: The interlocking was inspected by a track-geometry vehicle most recently in February. Both tracks got a once-over by inspectors in July. And the interlocking received a detailed inspection on June 17. Lavin said it was not clear why those inspections had not identified the defects.
Wiedefeld did not comment on whether he thinks employees may have falsified an inspection report. The decision to bring in two former federal prosecutors to investigate potential criminal wrongdoing came after investigators encountered “conflicting information and disturbing information,” Wiedefeld said, but he added that he could not say more because of the ongoing investigation.
In terms of long-term solutions, Metro officials have said they’ve embarked on a top-to-bottom revamping of the track-maintenance program, which involves an overhaul in the inspection schedule, a beefed-up maintenance training program, and an independent tabulation of track defects by outside consultants.
On Thursday, officials said they’ve also brought in a six-person team of inspectors, trained by the Federal Railroad Administration and with decades of experience, to make their own assessment of the state of the system’s tracks and to help train and mentor Metro staffers in performing more-thorough inspections.
The agency also is seeking technological solutions such as high-definition video to help detect or monitor track problems. And Metro leaders acknowledged that they had not been using the multimillion-dollar track-geometry vehicle — designed to catch track defects — to inspect interlockings.
“What’s the story with the Mad Max Machine?” board member Tom Bulger said, referring to a nickname for the vehicle.
Lavin replied that the derailment brought to the agency’s attention that the vehicle was not being used to inspect crossovers.
“Really,” Bulger said in a sarcastic tone.
“Yes, sir,” Lavin replied.
“And how many crossovers do we have that the Mad Max Machine missed?” he asked.
“I assume most of the terminals,” Lavin replied.
“And that’s been going on since we bought this thing for almost eight million bucks?” Bulger asked.
Wiedefeld interjected. “Basically, institutionally, it was not being used.”
“Really. Great. Okay,” Bulger replied, seemingly unsatisfied.
Officials said they plan to start using the machine on interlockings and in addition may also start sending it out on the tracks more frequently than the current twice-yearly.
Tech solutions are also being considered as a fix for Metro’s problems with red-signal violations, the most egregious of which occurred in early July and involved a Red Line train that nearly struck two track workers before heading in the direction of an oncoming train. The train was stopped a few thousand feet before impact.
Lavin said he wants to change the engineering on the red-signal system so that all trains are automatically stopped at any red light, with operators needing to take two or three extra steps to pass through a signal that indicates a stop. Currently, trains that are being operated manually can pass through red signals without stopping if their speed is less than 12 mph.
Even amid the optimism about Metro’s new brass, board member Michael Goldman, representing Maryland, expressed frustration that the agency’s troubled history had, essentially, repeated itself.
“We’ve now gone through this like ‘Groundhog Day’ over and over again,” he said. “I want to see steps taken in the system and the problem resolved so it doesn’t come back again next summer or next year.”
He was curt when responding to a query about whether he was satisfied with the answers he had received from the agency’s leaders. “No,” he said. “I’ll be more satisfied with actions rather than words.”
Board member Christian Dorsey, representing Virginia, said he was glad to see an honest reckoning with the issues plaguing the system and the entrenched inability to resolve problems. “I didn’t sense a desire to obfuscate at all,” Dorsey said.
But even the tepid optimism from the board came with a side of skepticism. Robert C. Lauby, a Metro board member from the Federal Railroad Administration, took an opportunity near the end of the meeting to congratulate Wiedefeld and his staff on their honesty and apparent commitment to change.
“Right now, you’re the fresh eyes. You’re part of the solution. And maybe in four, five years you might be part of the problem again,” Lauby said, “I don’t know.”
Cue nervous laughter from around the room.
“But you’re doing the right things,” he said, “and I want to congratulate you and thank you for the good information that you provided.”