Metro train and bus operators, mechanics and other employees have lined up to criticize the agency’s safety culture nearly three months after a deadly smoke incident left one person dead and spurred new questions about the system’s management and training.
A union meeting grew heated Wednesday night when Metro employees assailed interim General Manager Jack Requa with allegations that the transit agency has cut corners to minimize costs and has willfully ignored a laundry list of safety warnings from its workers.
They said Metro has instead promoted an internal culture that discourages workers from reporting safety concerns, a trend that they say has worsened recently.
“As an operator, I never know what happens when I make a report about a hazard that I have just seen,” Niya Banks, a train conductor, told the assembly of Metro workers, officials and transit experts who had gathered at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. “I have seen reports go many months without being properly handled.”
Requa responded with assurances that Metro takes their concerns seriously.
“We’re always willing to respond to concerns that our employees have,” he said, adding that the agency also provides anonymous reporting hotlines to the inspector general’s office and the safety office.
Metro has faced renewed scrutiny about its safety record in the months since scores of passengers where trapped on a smoke-filled train in a tunnel outside the L’Enfant Plaza station. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the Jan. 12 incident.
On Thursday, officials from Prince George’s and Fairfax counties briefed Metro board members on efforts to improve underground radio communications for first responders. During the Jan. 12 incident, D.C. firefighters below ground were unable to communicate clearly by radio with commanders outside. Some first responders used their personal cellphones to relay information; others carried messages on foot.
Prince George’s Fire Chief Marc S. Bashoor said authorities have worked out a system by which portable signal-relay equipment will be dispatched to the scene of any large-scale subway emergency to compensate for radio dead zones underground. A total overhaul of Metro’s relay equipment could take several years, he said.
Metro on Thursday also released new safety-preparedness videos that it said will air as public service announcements on television stations. The videos are meant to show riders what to do in the case of a fire or smoke emergency.
But Metro workers said that protocol and mechanical problems continue to hinder their ability to respond in crises. The employees also said they had warned supervisors of underground communication and mechanical flaws repeatedly before the January incident.
According to Banks and others, first-responder radio systems aren’t the only equipment that has underground service trouble.
The radios that train operators use to communicate with Metro’s command center, and that can prove crucial in an emergency, also fail to function for vast stretches of the region’s underground tunnel network, Metro employees said.
“On a regular basis, my radio can lose reception for up to 15 stations or more, leaving me with no communication with the control center, which puts both myself and all of our customers in danger if there is a hazard or problem on the roadway,” said Banks, a conductor on the Silver Line.
“Train operators have been complaining about dead spots throughout the rail for several years,” said another Metro employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so that he could talk candidly. Metro, he added, almost never responds to such complaints — “until something tragic happens.”
Metro train operators are not permitted to move their trains without speed commands from Metro’s control center, but poor radio coverage means that operators often can’t hear officials in the center and feel compelled to move anyway, Banks said.
When an emergency occurs in one of these dead zones, an operator has to choose between staying in place or breaking the rules to step out of the train cabin to use one of the tunnel’s land lines, she said. “We will never have an effective safety culture as long as we [have] an environment that is encouraging people to break the rules.”
The potentially dangerous communication lapses extend beyond technical issues, said James Madaras, the safety officer for Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority workers.
“In many instances, Local 689 finds out about a safety incident first from its members or by hearing about the incident in the media — not from WMATA’s safety department,” Madaras told the gathering Wednesday.
Adding to transit employee woes is a new disciplinary matrix that went into effect last month.
Rather than foster good safety reporting, the matrix has distracted operators from their duties by meting out disciplinary action for “minor” offenses, Metro workers alleged in interviews and at Wednesday’s meeting.
Metrobus drivers, in particular, said that they have increasingly become the victims of assaults arising from customer fare disputes but that they were more likely to be disciplined for confronting a fare evader than to see the rider punished.
“They tell us even taking your seat belt off is an act of aggression,” one bus driver said in an interview. “They would rather you get beat up so they are not liable for anything.”
Metro said the goal of the matrix is to set accountability standards.
“The disciplinary matrix is about accountability for performance,” Morgan Dye, a Metro spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. “Metro’s goal is to clearly communicate with employees what is expected in terms of job performance.”
But, in response to employee complaints about violence, the agency announced Thursday a $500,000 pilot program to increase the presence of Metro Transit Police on and around the system, with the aim of enforcing rules against fare evasion and preventing assaults.
Seventy-eight Metro employees reported assaults, ranging from “being spat upon, to being struck, punched or stabbed while on duty,” in 2014, according to Metro. Assaults increased 37 percent from 2013.
A manager at the Stadium-Armory Metro station was stabbed repeatedly this month by a woman who was angry that he would not let her ride for free.
Paul Duggan contributed to this report.