A scathing new report describes Metro’s rail operations center as a “toxic workplace” where employees are bullied, racially and sexually harassed, and told by managers to ignore authorities and operating procedures, creating chaos during emergencies and threatening passenger safety.

The 50-page audit by the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission (WMSC) notes deep cultural, communication and organizational flaws in the agency’s Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC), dating to the 1980s and persisting despite repeated calamities, federal investigations, reviews and mandates for changes. The audit said ROCC managers don’t just ignore orders to reform — they also continue to be resistant to change.

“The culture fostered by ROCC and [Office of Rail Transportation] leadership is toxic and antithetical to safety and other standards,” says the audit, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post.

Metro has 45 days to begin addressing more than 20 safety and structural findings identified by the commission, an independent panel created by Congress to oversee Metro safety after the previous oversight panel was found to be ineffective.

The audit calls into question Metro’s commitment to safety, as it highlights issues the transit agency was supposed to have addressed after both the deadly 2009 Red Line crash near Fort Totten and the fatal 2015 L’Enfant Plaza smoke incident. And it puts pressure on top Metro leadership to fix problems now.

General Manager Paul J. Wiede­feld was hired in November 2015 with the mandate to repair the agency’s broken safety culture.

The safety commission provided Metro with a draft copy of the audit to allow the agency to respond. In it, Metro “acknowledges that many of the gaps in ROCC management, processes and procedures are symptoms of a culture that has not embraced the value of Safety Trumps Service.”

“A foundational transformation is needed to turn the ROCC into a model for the transit industry,” the transit agency said, adding that changes beyond what the commission is calling for are underway.

Metro said it has hired consultants to develop new training, policies, workplace culture and safety guidelines.

The nerve center

The ROCC, headquartered within the agency’s Carmen Turner Facility in Landover, Md., is Metro’s 24-hour nerve center, responsible for directing all train traffic in the 91-station, 1,500-square-mile rail system. It is also where emergencies and crises are handled, and where train operators turn for advice and instruction when things go wrong. It also handles communications and emergency response.

Yet, the audit says, the “ROCC’s environment includes distractions, fear, threats and conflicting instructions that prevent overworked and undertrained controllers from fully and properly carrying out their duties.”

“These serious safety concerns create a variety of safety risks for everyone who depends on Metrorail,” it said.

Metro culture is such that workers cannot be trusted to investigate incidents, which further endangers riders, according to the audit.

“Metrorail must address a toxic workplace culture in the ROCC that includes racial and sexual comments, harassment, and other unprofessional behavior such as attempts to manipulate safety event investigations that create unacceptable safety risks,” it said.

That manipulation even extended to the safety commission’s audit, the report said, as ROCC managers tried to shape what information controllers disclosed to auditors during the six-month review.

As part of their audit, safety commission officials interviewed ROCC employees and Metro management, in addition to reviewing records, training manuals, logs, policies and audio communications between January and August. Interviews were conducted with 21 of 26 controllers on staff.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) requires such an audit at least once every three years. A commission investigation into a Dec. 10 incident, however, found “striking similarities” to the Jan. 12, 2015 arcing incident at L’Enfant Plaza that led to the death of one passenger, leading the panel to change its original audit schedule and shift its focus to the ROCC.

The commission found that in many cases, ROCC workers tried to follow the rules but were thwarted by superiors.

“Managers do not allow controllers to use troubleshooting guides, and the WMSC has learned of multiple incidents where management, including the Vice President of Rail Transportation and the then-ROCC Director, violated or instructed controllers to violate safety procedures,” the audit said.

“Every incident you have, people are telling you different things while you’re trying to monitor the radio,” one controller said. “They will tell you one thing. Before you can do it, they are telling you to do something else,” another controller told investigators.

In July, as emergency-response problems continued to mount, Metro replaced the ROCC director, but the interim director still reports to the same vice president for rail operations.

Harassment on the job

The audit said that ROCC managers engage in racial and sexual harassment. Multiple controllers told investigators about sexually explicit comments toward women, as well as racist and homophobic remarks. Threats and profanity are directed at employees who make mistakes. All of which add to the “chaotic environment” and create “additional layers of safety risks,” the audit said.

“You don’t listen because you are nappy headed. If you don’t train this student, I will have [the vice president of rail transportation] come down and walk your Black a-- out of here,” one controller told auditors he heard a manger say.

“Other controllers observed similarly disturbing comments toward female controllers including, ‘I wonder if you taste as good as you look,’ ” the audit said.

One manager is under investigation for being intoxicated on the job after concerns were raised by controllers.

Metro told the safety commission that it was developing sexual harassment and bias training in response to the allegations, but it questioned the allegations of racial harassment, intimidation and manipulation, asserting they weren’t specific and were made by unnamed sources.

“[Metro] is deeply concerned about certain assertions regarding threats to personnel and life safety without actionable information communicated to the Authority in real time that would have enabled leadership to take immediate corrective and preventive action,” the agency said in its response. “The [audit] lacks any specific information, further detail, or underlying support for these conclusions, which appear to be attributable to unnamed employee statements made several months ago.”

Stress in the control center is compounded by being overworked, the audit said. Managers don’t give controllers breaks, and they don’t follow the agency’s own “fatigue” policy that ensures rail workers are rested before shifts. The audit cited one controller who worked eight separate stretches of seven or more consecutive days from January to July 4.

The work atmosphere may be contributing to staffing problems. Over the span of a year, the ROCC lost 13 controllers or controller students out of about 38, an attrition rate of 27 percent.

When mistakes, crashes or other incidents occur, potential evidence isn’t protected, the audit alleged. Metro has no rules preventing editing or deleting of audio or video before it is sent to investigators, leaving open the possibility that files can be tampered with by those involved, their colleagues or supervisors.

“Metrorail has allowed a culture to develop where front line workers in the ROCC told the [safety commission] they no longer see any value in reporting and recording problems,” the audit said.

Old problems

Many of the problems identified in the audit are not new and in fact have been cited repeatedly over the years by the National Transportation Safety Board and the FTA. The NTSB’s investigation into the 2009 Red Line crash that killed nine people “identified a culture that included a lack of ongoing concern about ways to avoid unforeseen problems, and [Metro] management placing too much blame for accidents on individual front line employees,” the audit said.

Federal officials, frustrated with Metro’s repeated safety ­lapses, took the unprecedented step of assuming safety oversight of the rail system in October 2015. The takeover led to Metro being ordered to correct more than 51 safety problems, requiring 91 corrective steps. To date, the task remains incomplete.

On May 3, 2016, then-NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said “something is fundamentally flawed” about Metro safety. Hart made the comments at a meeting to release a report on the L’Enfant Plaza incident. Hart is now chairman the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission.

And the incidents continue, renewing concerns about emergency response and communication problems that persist inside the ROCC. On Oct. 7, an out-of-service train struck another empty train after an operator ignored a systemwide stop order. In that case, communication issues between the ROCC, train operators and emergency dispatch delayed how quickly firefighters were dispatched.

On Dec. 10, an electrical fire along a Red Line track created hours of commuting chaos, compounded by Metro’s emergency response, according to the commission. An in-service train was used to check on the fire, endangering passengers onboard, while a lack of correct and clear instructions from the ROCC led the operator to disable the train, causing the cars to go dark and panicking riders. Firefighters were also put into jeopardy when ROCC workers restored power to the third rail before crews had left the tracks.

The response was especially alarming because, the safety commission said, it was all too similar to L’Enfant Plaza.

The issues manifested again on Feb. 4, when a fire broke out in a room just off the Red Line. Once again, Metro sent a train filled with passengers to investigate the reports of smoke. The audit said the transit agency waited several minutes before calling fire responders.

The mistakes, from the safety commission’s point of view, are not procedural but reveal a resistance to change and leadership’s unwillingness to address the ROCC culture.

Perhaps most telling was Metro’s response after receiving the advance copy of the audit for review.

“After a draft of this audit was shared with Metrorail for final technical review as required . . . the Vice President of Rail Transportation warned controllers of a higher workload and unnecessary paperwork, despite the WMSC’s draft findings focusing on management’s continued failures, not controller failures,” the audit said.

“The Vice President of Rail Transportation also told controllers not to talk to the WMSC, to resist required corrective actions, and to paint a rosy picture of the ROCC for an internal Metrorail transformation team. At least some of these discussions were held away from microphones that record ambient audio in the ROCC.”

As far back as 1982, the audit said, federal officials have told Metro to develop and follow a set of standard procedures when dealing with emergencies, but controllers reported managers playing down safety issues and prioritizing “getting power up” and keeping “the trains moving,” according to the report.

Metro has repeatedly been told to come up with a checklist that will help controllers navigate emergencies. Even after being reminded to do so in May, ROCC management “was still only considering allowing controllers to use checklists, rather than committing to past promises to follow written procedures,” the safety commission said.

Investigators also found “multiple instances where controllers said they had been rushed to restore power even with first responders or others still on the tracks.”

The audit also found managers taking the controls without letting the controllers know — a particularly dangerous issue that could lead to collisions because of mixed signals. But the then-ROCC director told auditors that he viewed managers taking over the controls as a way to “reduce incidents, and suggested it is controllers’ responsibility to be alert for unexpected remote manipulation.”

Metro’s internal audit system found nine instances in the last two weeks of May where managers had taken over the controls.

Metro said it has ordered an end to any manipulation, if it occurs. The agency said it is improving both the technology and procedures for recording and transmitting communications, and it is searching for a new ROCC director. But the safety commission said it hasn’t been enough.

“Despite some possible steps forward, Metrorail has not accomplished the necessary cultural change in the ROCC,” the audit said.