“For a rail system just like Metro, they rely on uniform steps and standards to govern all their actions, and this is crucial in order to maintain that things are maintained to a predictable level, and that predictability leads to safety,” said Sharmila Samarasinghe, the commission’s chief operating officer.
Safety has been Metro’s focus since the Federal Transit Administration took the rare step of taking temporary control of subway safety oversight after a string of mishaps culminated in the death of a passenger from smoke inhalation in the L’Enfant Plaza tunnel in 2015.
The next year, Metro began a dramatic change, curbing late-night service so crews could repair and replace tracks in a $150 million maintenance project called SafeTrack.
The commission was created last year as a permanent, independent Metrorail safety monitor to replace the FTA oversight.
Samarasinghe said some of the issues found in the audit were the same as those found by federal authorities years ago. In some cases, Metro started working on solutions, but the work had stalled, she said.
Metro responded to the findings, saying it recently completed senior leadership changes in its Track and Structures Department “with an eye toward improving many of the forms, processes, and procedures the [audit] highlights,” transit agency spokesman Ian Jannetta said.
“While a number of these matters require additional effort,” he said, “we also note the report’s conclusion that there has been progress in addressing staffing shortages and that the structure was reorganized to reflect increased efficiencies.”
Commission auditors cited Metro for:
•No written plans laying out when and how to maintain tracks and structures.
•No records to indicate if lubricators on restraining rails were being refilled. The lubricators reduce noise, track wear and chances for derailment.
•No annual culvert inspections or weed spraying program — an industry standard.
•Allowing workers with no formal training to perform repairs.
•Poor or absent quality control checks.
•Failing to conduct enough summer “heat rides” or inspections.
Heat rides to inspect tracks are required when outside temperatures hit 90 degrees. Extreme heat can cause “sun kinks,” which can shift tracks laterally and create curves.
“When a kink or high tension is found in the track, rail agencies commonly take the track out of service, repair any defect, and then return the track to service,” the audit said.
A sun kink was found to have caused a 2012 derailment on the Green Line in Prince George’s County.
The temperature last year was high enough on 85 days to require a heat ride, but Metro conducted just 11.
Metro is required to submit a corrective plan to fix the flaws. “They can suggest a time frame, and we are going to tell them if it’s acceptable or not,” Samarasinghe said.