Metro knew of track flaws more than a year before a July derailment, and the agency’s track inspectors may have contributed to the crash by falsifying inspection reports month after month, according to documents released Thursday by the National Transportation Safety Board.
The NTSB confirmed that the July 29 derailment of the Silver Line train outside East Falls Church was caused by “wide gauge,” a condition in which the rails spread in such a way that they cannot support a train. No one was seriously injured, but the train sustained about $150,000 in damage.
The NTSB report also shows explicitly how much Metro knew in advance of the derailment: Every inspection report from January 2015 to June 2016 listed 15 deteriorating rail ties in the area of the derailment and yet the problem remained unaddressed.
In the aftermath of the derailment, Metro conducted inspections on more than 60 crossovers — where trains switch tracks — throughout the system to ensure similar conditions weren’t present elsewhere.
But the NTSB report underscores that Metro, already under scrutiny for its poor service and chronic safety lapses, may have been even more troubled than thought. It also shows that many of the agency’s problems are self-inflicted and possibly even caused by intentional acts. A criminal investigation into the derailment was opened in August, but no charges have been announced.
The report comes as Metro wrestles with issues of safety, reliability and finances, as well as a dramatic loss of ridership. Track fires, smoke incidents and other problems on the tracks have led to an unprecedented year-long safety overhaul called “SafeTrack” that has closed sections of several lines. And while no one was seriously injured in the derailment, it was another example of just how deep the problems run with Metro’s safety culture and lack of oversight.
On Thursday, Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld declined to comment on the content of the transcripts, saying that the incident remains under investigation, but he said that his staff had already planned to provide updates on the investigation at a Metro board meeting later this month. He also declined to comment on the status of the track workers involved.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who on Friday will take part in a House Oversight subcommittee hearing on Metro, said: “If confirmed, [these Metro workers] should be fired, terminated immediately, no arbitration, no appeal. They put lives at risk, knowingly, to cover for themselves. . . . They lied. They falsified inspection reports, and look what happened: We have a derailment as a result.”
Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) said: “The NTSB report on the East Falls Church derailment points to an unacceptable lack of safety culture at Metro which put the lives of 63 riders that day — and potentially many others — in jeopardy. Per the report, some at Metro were disregarding their own safety rules and procedures as it relates to track inspection.
“I fully support Metro’s criminal investigation into this matter. Those who abuse the public trust in such a manner must be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law. I look forward to the oversight hearing tomorrow where my colleagues and I will be examining this issue and many other issues at Metro further.”
Interview transcripts suggest that Metro officials believe that track inspectors fabricated inspection reports by copying the exact same measurements of the section of track from month to month.
“So how did your measurements stay the same if your ties are getting worse and worse?” asked Metro safety officer Robert Davis, interviewing inspector Jovito Azurin in early August. Azurin had been overseeing the crossover near East Falls Church. “After three years, how did the measurements all be exactly the same?”
“You’re not going to tell me that the track didn’t move a sixteenth of an inch or an eighth of an inch or a quarter of an inch over that time,” Davis added. “I can go out here and gauge this track out here and I could find different gauge everywhere right now.”
“If I believed you for one second . . . I would end this right now and move on, but you know as well as I do that you can’t look me in the eye and tell me that, because you’re an honest man,” Davis said.
Azurin repeatedly tells Davis that the numbers are accurate.
Neither Azurin nor any of the other workers mentioned in the transcripts could be reached for comment.
The transcripts also provide a first-person account of a recurring issue raised by Metro workers: Even when employees identify problems, their concerns often are ignored.
Track inspector Lawrence Simmons said in an interview with Davis that supervisors routinely asked him to ignore conditions such as deteriorating rail ties because they didn’t seem to be a serious safety threat. When he wanted to restrict speeds on those tracks, supervisors pushed back. One supervisor, he said, routinely “sweeps stuff under the rug.”
Simmons said that just before the derailment, track workers installed gauge rods at the crossover, essentially admitting they knew the tracks weren’t holding up. Gauge rods are a temporary fix for faulty tracks.
“I’m not going to say they knew about a wide gauge, but they knew something is going on there, because they put a Band-Aid on it,” Simmons said. “And in this company, they do a lot of that. You know, they put on Band-Aids.”
And in an Aug. 9 interview with safety officer Davis, track inspector Trapp Thomas said that the problems at the crossover that caused the derailment had previously been reported to management.
“It was reported. Management dropped the ball as they always do,” Thomas said. “They never fix those ties.”
Wiedefeld acknowledged Thursday that employees have historically feared retaliation for reporting problems.
“It’s an issue that has been around and is one that we made very clear that that is not acceptable,” he said. “If I get anything from an employee that raises any issue of that, I basically make sure that that is addressed immediately. That is a part of the culture change.”
In a statement released Thursday, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents Metro’s track workers, placed the blame squarely on the agency’s managers.
“Metro managers knew of the needed maintenance that caused the derailment and failed to act,” the union said. “Unless the culture of Metro changes so that the front line workers are listened to, Metro will not be able to meet its challenges. This derailment and its investigation is a terrible reminder of that.”
The interview transcripts reflect the difficulty Wiedefeld has ahead of him as he attempts to instill a safety culture among the agency’s 13,000 employees. In his interview with track worker Azurin, safety officer Davis urges him to tell the truth.
“If the supervisors are telling you to do this, then we’ve got to deal with those supervisors, because it’s not safe out there for my family, your family, me, you,” Davis says. “I want to do a damn good job and I want to be the best I can be . . . but if we’re doing stuff like this, and if a supervisor’s telling you, damn it, JoJo, we need to take care of that.”
“You and I both know this,” Davis added, “we’re in an age now where people are not going to be continuing to work here with this kind of stuff going on, but I can’t stop what’s going on unless I know what’s going on.”
On Thursday, Metro officials defended actions taken in the days after the derailment. The site was added to the scope of the agency’s SafeTrack maintenance program, officials commissioned a complete rewrite of Metro’s track inspection manual, and they hired outside consultants to provide improved training to inspectors. They are advocating for permission to launch a preventive maintenance program.
Even so, the NTSB’s new report rehashes concerns over whether the derailment could have been prevented if the Federal Railroad Administration, and not the Federal Transit Administration, had taken over Metro safety-oversight responsibilities a year ago — an issue that has been raised repeatedly on Capitol Hill since Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx made the decision.
FTA officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Had [the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority] been subject to the FRA regulations, WMATA track inspectors would have been required to report any conditions that did not meet FRA minimum safety standards and implement remedial actions,” the NTSB said in its report. “There is no exception under FRA regulation that would allow for a track with a defective condition, such as the one in East Falls Church, to remain in service beyond 30 days when loaded passenger trains operate over the track.”
That conclusion, Connolly said, illustrated the “extraordinarily bad judgment by Secretary Anthony Foxx to go with FTA and not FRA.” Earlier NTSB recommendations to shift oversight to the rail agency — instead of a transit administration that does not typically oversee subways — should not have been ignored, Connolly said.