Metro’s 10-month SafeTrack maintenance plan may become even more extensive as officials weigh the possibility of adding weekend shutdowns or postponing the program’s conclusion as the agency continues its investigation and performs inspections in the aftermath of last month’s derailment at East Falls Church.
Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said Wednesday that the agency has already taken significant steps toward revamping the track maintenance protocols that failed to prevent the July 29 derailment of a Silver Line train, but also acknowledged that it had been a mistake to keep the section of track where the crash occurred open so that SafeTrack work could continue.
“There was a balance there of service versus the work that needed to be done,” Wiedefeld said at a news conference. “And that balance probably was tilted more toward service than it should have been.”
Still, Metro officials dispute a narrative from federal regulators that they had been aware of the imminent risks on the track where the derailment occurred. The derailment happened while the train was passing through an interlocking, the mechanism that allows trains to shift between the tracks.
The Federal Transit Administration said this week that its inspectors had encouraged Metro to include that particular stretch of track in the SafeTrack schedule.
But Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said federal inspectors had not specifically communicated to Metro that there was an acute need to take that particular interlocking out of service.
“If [Wiedefeld] or [Metro’s chief safety officer] had known about a safety condition, trains would not have run,” Stessel said. “There is no evidence that FTA specifically requested that this interlocking not be used — and there have been lots of outside eyes looking at track here.”
In a statement Wednesday, the FTA shifted blame back to Metro, saying it was the ultimate authority on the safety of its tracks.
“The FTA highlighted concerns with the overall track condition along the Ballston to Vienna line, and WMATA agreed to move the most at-risk section earlier in its SafeTrack program,” an FTA spokesman said in the statement. “However, as our track condition report indicates, WMATA has systemically failed to conduct proper safety inspections on crossover tracks. We flagged this area of track as a concern, and ultimately WMATA must ensure that all infrastructure along that corridor — including crossover tracks — are in a safe condition.”
In inspections since the derailment, Metro officials have identified at least six other interlockings that they say they believe need near-term repair work. To perform those repairs, they will need to shutter segments of the system — and they’re looking at weekend closures in order to do that.
Metro officials have already decided to close a stretch of track between Shady Grove and Grosvenor-Strathmore stations this weekend so that the interlocking at Twinbrook can be repaired.
The prospect of a lengthier or more disruptive SafeTrack schedule follows a scathing federal report this week that blasted the agency’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 36-page report resulted from months of investigations into Metro’s track maintenance practices.
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.
Wiedefeld said that he had already been generally aware of the problems raised in the FTA report, and that many of the issues cited are already being addressed. He listed four contracts that have been awarded, or are in the process of being awarded, to overhaul the system’s training manuals and track inspection training program, as well as hiring outside engineering consultants to conduct a comprehensive asset inventory.
Those contracts, Wiedefeld said, will go a long way toward solving the most significant problems raised by federal inspectors. Specifically, trainers with the University of Tennessee’s Center of Transportation Research are scheduled to visit Metro next month to conduct two weeks of intensive training on how to perform track inspections, categorize defects and prioritize repair work. By next summer, Wiedefeld said, the training curriculum for track inspectors will be completely rewritten, with trainers getting new procedures on how to teach other workers. The program will be audited by outside experts.
Wiedefeld said problems with the interlocking involved in the derailment, which federal officials said had been known to Metro since 2009, were never brought to his attention.
“It was never brought up as an issue one way or the other,” he said.
Of his employees’ approach to reporting problems, he said: “I wish I could snap my fingers and they would all be on the same page at the same time.”
Wiedefeld also said that a specialized vehicle capable of catching the “wide gauge” problem that caused the July 29 derailment was out of service because it was undergoing routine maintenance, not because it was broken. The vehicle is scheduled to operate twice per year — once in February, and once in August.
Wiedefeld’s news conference came as Metro board members have expressed mixed opinions on whether the agency is headed in the right direction.
Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans, who met with Wiedefeld and top-level staff Wednesday morning, said Wiedefeld plans to release a cost estimate in September for the SafeTrack work and accompanying measures meant to improve safety.
“Whether it’s tens of millions or hundreds of millions, we’re looking at a big-ticket item here to continue to do this,” Evans said. “Where is this money going to come from? I’ll tell you this: It’s going to be the federal government or the three jurisdictions.”
Evans has expressed outrage and frustration in recent days over the findings of the FTA’s track maintenance report, but at Wednesday’s news conference he took a more diplomatic tone.
Once the investigation into the derailment is concluded, Evans said, he will be watching to see if there are individuals who failed to complete necessary tasks and should be terminated.
Evans reiterated the point that SafeTrack will not alleviate all of the safety issues in the beleaguered system. “I don’t want anybody to have the impression that we will have a new system and everything will be hunky-dory,” he said.
He said he remains confident in Wiedefeld’s leadership, calling his public mea culpa on excluding the problematic interlocking from SafeTrack “honest and forthright,” and adding that he believes the Metro board also holds responsibility for the degraded track that led to the derailment.
Board member Christian Dorsey, who represents Virginia, said he continues to support Wiedefeld and gives him time to instill permanent improvements.
“I have a degree of patience that accepts that this will take some time and progress won’t come without setbacks,” Dorsey said Wednesday. “But it is beyond frustrating that these safety lapses and issues seem largely preventable.”
Others were less generous.
Metro Board member Corbett A. Price said restoring Metro to a state of respectability requires “a total restructuring.” He said he supports any changes to SafeTrack that would improve the safety of the system, but incremental changes are not enough.
“That’s great and we should do that, but we’re reacting,” said Price, who represents the District. “We need to get ahead of the situation. These situations exist out there — some of them have existed for years. There are people in the organization who know the problems. They have to be the ones to come forward to say ‘this is an issue — this has been an issue.’ ”
The FTA report requires Metro to take a hard look at its overall approach to safety issues, he said.
Meanwhile, he said, Wiedefeld should examine whether some long-tenured staffers are up to the task of restoring the system. He reiterated his belief that Wiedefeld needs to populate his staff with those who are willing to fulfill his agenda, not those who are vested in the ways of the past.
“He’s the CEO of a company. He’s been there for a very short period of time. It’s a very troubled company. He’s not going to get instantaneous results,” he said. “There’s a lot of people there who are going to have to take responsibility for their actions and if not, you’re going to have to remove them. You can’t waste time.”
Underscoring the urgency of the task facing Metro, he said: “The clock is ticking.”