Metro Transit Police and two former federal prosecutors are launching an investigation into whether criminal wrongdoing may have contributed to last month’s derailment of a Silver Line train, the agency said Thursday.
General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld announced that he has requested that the agency’s police department open a parallel investigation into the July 29 incident — in which a train derailed outside of East Falls Church station — a move that suggests officials are considering criminal charges against maintenance workers or inspectors who could have contributed to the crash.
The National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Transit Administration had already concluded that the derailment occurred because the infrastructure was so degraded at that juncture that the train’s wheels came off the tracks. They also said that Metro failed to adhere to a frequent, regular inspection schedule and that the training program for maintenance workers had proven inadequate.
Wiedefeld’s statement Thursday suggested that the lapses may have been even more serious.
“The public has a right to know that the tracks on which their trains run are being properly inspected,” Wiedefeld said. “The information uncovered to date raises potentially serious concerns, and we will take all actions necessary to get answers and hold people accountable.”
According to Metro, Wiedefeld decided to request police involvement after investigators alerted him to information that they had gleaned from interviews with employees, inspection reports, video recordings and rail defect tracking.
Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly declined to offer further specifics on what kinds of malfeasance officials believe may have occurred — whether serious negligence or intentional sabotage or otherwise.
Metro General Counsel Patricia Y. Lee — a recent Wiedefeld hire who started on the job last month — has solicited help from former assistant U.S. attorneys Adam Hoffinger and Peter White to assist with the investigation.
“The administrative review uncovered information that warrants further investigation by Metro Transit Police,” Wiedefeld said in a statement. “While Safety Department investigations determine cause and accountability, it is even more important to understand if other issues must be addressed with the way track inspections and maintenance have been conducted.”
Wiedefeld’s push to root out potential criminal acts follows months of calls from Metro Board members demanding harsher punishments for workers and supervisors who have shirked responsibilities, ignored wrongdoing or failed to report potentially dangerous conditions on the tracks.
The Silver Line train involved in the July 29 derailment was carrying several dozen people; one passenger suffered a concussion when his head slammed against the train’s window as it fell off the tracks, while several others experienced minor injuries.
Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans applauded Wiedefeld for taking what he called the “dramatic action” of opening a criminal probe into the derailment. He said he was briefed on the decision earlier Thursday. Wiedefeld, he said, advised him that the information Metro was receiving on the derailment was inconsistent and contradictory.
The message sent by the criminal probe was as follows: “Paul and I are not fooling around,” Evans said. “This is not business as usual. From my point, if I find out that somebody did something that was criminally negligent, etc. then we’re going to prosecute that person and put them in jail.”
Evans declined to say who, specifically, was responsible for the unreliable information. He planned to press Metro staff for more information at an emergency meeting of the agency’s Board of Directors scheduled for Aug. 25.
“We are not going to tolerate this foolishness,” Evans said of the bad information. “If something is wrong, we’re going to get to the bottom of it, and whoever is responsible is going to have to pay the price.”
Metro’s largest union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, declined to comment Thursday citing the ongoing investigation.
A Federal Transit Administration spokesman declined to comment, saying that Metro’s investigation was an internal matter.
NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said the agency does not currently anticipate opening up its limited findings from two weeks ago into a wider investigation, and added that it would not be involved in a criminal investigation.
In a statement, Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) called news of the investigation “one more disturbing revelation from Metro,” and added that she has spoken to Wiedefeld about how to identify serious problems within the rail system and demand more transparency about the inspection process.
“The decades of mismanagement are continuing to manifest themselves on a weekly basis,” Comstock said. “The public deserves an expeditious review by the law enforcement authorities that are being brought in to review these serious concerns.”