Metro trains have run red lights 47 times in the past four years, and the problem has gotten worse — not better — since regional oversight officials called for corrections in 2013, according to a federal safety directive released this week.
Efforts to retrain operators, hand out maps, hold “safety talks” and make sure controllers and supervisors tell operators when they’re nearing a red signal “have not reduced the frequency of occurrence,” according to the Federal Transit Administration, which added that there have been “more overruns experienced so far in 2015 than in either of the preceding two years.”
The red lights are meant to warn operators of potential dangers, including other trains, and adhering to them is a basic pillar of rail safety. But the FTA found that Metro operators “consistently feel pressure to rush through routes and speed up train movements.”
Mortimer L. Downey, chairman of the Metro board, said he does not know why the issue has persisted but added that the agency will work to make improvements in that area as well as others cited by federal officials.
“Certainly, if they’re valid safety recommendations, we’re going to take them seriously and deal with them,” Downey said. “I can’t think of any obvious reasons why more red-signal violations are happening now than in the past. There shouldn’t be any. It’s a pretty serious thing to have happened.”
The finding emerged from a list of more than 200 safety concerns, dating to 2008, that were identified by a joint Virginia, Maryland and District safety committee known as the Tri-State Oversight Committee (TOC).
But many of the committee’s concerns have gone unresolved.
After a deadly smoke incident at L’Enfant Plaza in January prompted additional scrutiny of Metro’s safety shortcomings, the FTA took over ultimate responsibility for overseeing the subway’s safety. Federal officials issued their own safety findings this year, and on Tuesday, they put their weight behind the TOC’s findings.
Although Metro had taken action on many of the TOC’s findings, federal officials have now included them in a central database so they can be tracked and enforced. The concerns range from collisions in rail yards after workers disregarded safety rules to the storage of “incompatible flammable gases” too close to each other in some service areas.
Running red lights is not a new problem for Metro.
For years, the TOC has cited a series of troubling examples of operators blowing through signals. On Tuesday, federal officials on Tuesday pointed to a host of those previously identified incidents.
One “red signal violation” occurred June 2, 2013, at Van Dorn Street in the Alexandria area. Another Metro train “overran a red signal at Braddock Road” on Oct. 30, 2014; the operator “was not aware of his speed readouts” and failed to contact controllers before proceeding, according to TOC findings cited by the FTA.
The pattern was repeated Jan. 23. The train operator who ran the red light “stated he was rushed, did not read speed commands, and failed to request permission before leaving the terminal.”
Federal officials say Metro is not doing enough to address the problem. The transit agency “is not providing sufficient oversight regarding train speeds,” federal officials concluded in the findings this week.
Years ago, Metro officials had indicated that they were on the case.
In a presentation days after the June 2013 incident at Van Dorn, Metro noted the “human factor related errors” that led operators to disregard the signals. It cited operator “inattention and distraction” and “unclear communication” between operators and the Rail Operations Control Center.
Metro officials said they were engaging in a “safety blitz by supervisors to communicate to train operators the importance of red signal rule compliance.”
But the blitz didn’t work.
This week, the FTA cited “the pervasiveness and seriousness of this problem.”
It said Metro must immediately improve its testing and observation of operators by using speed guns and other methods; improve radio communications to focus more on where trains are moving; and improve “situational awareness” among operators.
After running their first red light, operators “must be immediately removed from service and retrained,” the FTA said.
A broader training campaign, informed by the findings of a recent Metro-commissioned analysis of violations in 2014, should help operators “enhance their ‘personal readiness’ for train movements through signals and provide strategies for managing pressure and ‘unintentional’ rushing to meet on-time performance demands,” according to the FTA.
Metro should look hard at its schedule and the frequency of trains “to ensure realistic operating times so employees aren’t speeding and rushing to make time,” the FTA said.
Downey said that’s a fair recommendation.
“It’s certainly worth taking a look at the schedules,” Downey said, to see whether officials are “overscheduling and, in effect, have a schedule that can’t be met.”