In ordering a 24-hour shutdown of the Washington region’s rail system for safety reasons, Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said he also hoped to send a forceful signal to his staff that the new boss is determined to put passengers’ security first, regardless of other consequences.
“This is what a safety culture looks like,” Wiedefeld said in an interview Wednesday as hundreds of thousands of riders stayed home or scrambled for alternative ways to get around.
Many Metro users and local leaders agreed — sometimes grudgingly — that the unprecedented closure was a necessary remedy for an agency that has plainly failed to embrace safety reforms despite years of pressure to do so.
Wiedefeld shuttered the system so crews could conduct emergency inspections of 600 subway power cables — identical to the one that caused a tunnel fire Monday — to ensure that they weren’t deadly fire hazards. The safety check found three areas-- McPherson Square, Foggy Bottom and Potomac Avenue-- all heavily traveled parts of the system, where damage was so severe that had officials been aware, Metro would immediately have stopped running trains through them.
The action reinforced the impression that Wiedefeld may prove to be a genuine change agent who will shake up the transit agency. That’s just what many, though not all, Metro board members wanted when they hired him in November.
But some local leaders, notably D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), signaled that they thought Wiedefeld acted hastily and was too slow about keeping them informed.
“We definitely understand that safety is paramount, but we still don’t understand what the criteria are for making such a drastic decision,” John Falcicchio, Bowser’s chief of staff, said Wednesday.
The dramatic closure also had the effect of highlighting for the Washington region that Metro’s problems are so serious that residents can’t rely on it to be available on any given day. And that could strengthen efforts to force the jurisdictions that pay for Metro to resolve long-standing problems with unreliable funding and an unwieldy governing structure, as well as poor maintenance and financial mismanagement.
“I think part of the reason for this unprecedented and extraordinary move was to increase the visibility of these enormous challenges,” said Robert Puentes, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program. “I’m not sure it’s going to really change things, but it sends a strong signal.”
Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans said a new, regional funding source is needed to help pay for work, such as repairing the defective cables that led to the shutdown.
“I hope this is a wake-up call for the entire region — for the District, for Virginia, for Maryland and the federal government — that we need to invest in our system once and for all,” said Evans, who also is a D.C. Council member. “I recognize . . . that the worst time to ask for more money, or more support, is when you’re doing poorly. [But] the region has to do its part to support Metro.”
Wiedefeld has warned that Metro must address its persistent, structural budget deficit in the long term. But he also has faulted the agency for failing for more than a decade to spend all the money it had available for capital investment.
Wednesday’s shutdown was the second surprising closure Wiedefeld has ordered in four months in the job; the first was during the January blizzard.
Wiedefeld also has spoken bluntly about Metro’s inadequacies since taking over. He has said that he found the agency’s problems to be worse than he expected and that the system and the region must “confront some hard truths.”
He said he ordered Wednesday’s shutdown primarily because he couldn’t guarantee passengers’ safety after an electrical fire in a Metro tunnel near McPherson Square early Monday.
That fire appears to have resulted from the same kind of electrical malfunction that caused the January 2015 Yellow Line smoke incident, which resulted in the death of one rider and left scores injured.
Because Monday’s cable problem occurred in the predawn hours before trains were running, nobody was hurt. But it was particularly worrisome because the cable that melted passed inspection last year, when all cables were checked after the Yellow Line event. “Clearly, the safety-inspection process was not adequate, which calls into question every inspection they’ve done for the last year,” said John Porcari, a former deputy U.S. secretary of transportation.
Wiedefeld said he wasn’t sure whether the defective cable’s problems were overlooked in the earlier inspection or arose after the check.
“Fourteen months ago, we had a tragedy on this system. And [Monday], we had conditions that replicated that tragedy. And for me to not do something about it immediately — that’s not something I could live with,” Wiedefeld said.
“I slept a lot better last night, to be frank,” after ordering the closure, he said.
Wiedefeld compared the Metro decision to ones he made when he ran Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport. There, he had to weigh the risk of a crash against the inconvenience to an airline or passengers.
“It was about 187 people coming in at 150 miles an hour on a . . . piece of concrete,” he said. “If I had an issue up there, I understood it would impact Southwest. I knew it would impact the people in the terminal,” he said, speaking of safety in general. “But that’s not the decision. The decision is: Do we feel we can bring those 187 people down safely? And if we don’t feel that we’re 100 percent there, then we do something about it.
“That’s the same safety mentality I bring to this agency,” Wiedefeld said. “This is the way it should be run. And I think that’s what’s needed at this agency.”
Wiedefeld said a crucial part of instilling a safety-minded culture in Metro is convincing front-line employees that they are free to speak up and tell management if they see a potential safety hazard.
For years, Metro has been criticized for its top-down management, in which front-line employees are hesitant, or unmotivated, to challenge practices that they know aren’t working or are unsafe.
The problem was supposed to be solved by a massive “safety culture” push after the 2009 Red Line crash, which killed nine people. But Wiedefeld said it “definitely” is still an issue.
“I have repeatedly said this to every line employee, that basically: ‘You are the person that touches the customer directly. If you have an issue — and I mean that from both a safety perspective and from a management perspective — you have to raise that issue with management. You have to raise that issue with me, so I understand it, and then we attack it,’ ” he said.
“We are not going to change this agency — whether it’s safety, customer service, efficiency — unless we get the line people, the line managers, to think that way and to operate that way,” he said.
He also warned that anybody who doesn’t buy into his program will be gone.
“Will I get 100 percent? Probably not. But I will get a vast majority of them to realize that this is who we are as an agency,” Wiedefeld said. “The people who work directly for me will understand that, or they will not be here. It’s fairly simple.”
A high-ranking Metro official said it would take time for Wiedefeld to figure out whom to trust in the agency.
“The bottom line is he can’t rely on the people working for him,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly.
“It’s a troubled company. Nothing significant has changed, other than [Wiedefeld’s] arrival. Whoever had been providing information to previous leadership is providing information to him. Nothing fundamental has changed to guarantee that the information he’s getting is accurate,” the official said.
The rail system’s closure drew mixed reactions from many local officials. They supported the shutdown out of respect for safety but bemoaned that Metro had sunk so low that the step was needed.
“Today’s action to shut down the Metrorail system was dramatic, drastic and disruptive, but necessary to ensure safety is finally being taken seriously at Metro,” sad Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.).
Sharon Bulova (D), head of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, said the closure underlined the importance of improving Metro’s management and providing a reliable source of funding for operations. Metro is the only major U.S. transit system that can’t rely on a dedicated stream of revenue from the region, such as through a local sales tax.
“Shutting down the system certainly has been some pretty strong medicine on the part of Mr. Wiedefeld. This really is the result of years of neglect and a lack of funding for the system over the years, and there’s also evidence of a lack of really careful management on the part of the Metro staff,” Bulova said.
She said Wiedefeld had done “the right thing” because “he sure has gotten our attention to the need for investing in, and taking time and effort to address, safety concerns.”
Bulova will be one of about 100 local officials, business executives and others attending a March 30 forum about Metro’s future, organized by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and the Greater Washington Board of Trade.
The goal is to start a year-long effort to find ways to improve funding and governance of Metro, whose board was split for most of last year in a bitter fight over what kind of general manager to hire.
It’s not clear, however, that the forum will attract the top officials involved. Bowser isn’t going because of a scheduling conflict.
Meanwhile, Wiedefeld suggested that things at Metro would get worse before they get better. He has talked about plumbing the depths of Metro’s problems, about figuring out where “the floor” is. Well, he was asked, has he found the floor yet?
“I think we’re getting there,” he said, then sighed deeply. “I hope we are.”