A “near miss” after a Metrorail operator ran a red signal this week and moved into the path of an oncoming train has critics questioning whether repeated promises of safety improvements are taking hold.
Both trains were carrying passengers.
On Friday, Metro officials revealed that they had fired the operator in Tuesday night’s incident, which also endangered two track inspectors, who managed to dodge the train that ran the signal.
“This is something that boggles the mind for most of us,” said Christian Dorsey, one of Virginia’s representatives on the board of directors of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). “Most of us don’t understand why this isn’t a rare, once-every-hundred-years kind of event.”
There have been more than 50 reported overruns on Metrorail since 2012, a rash of recurring safety breaches that the Federal Transit Administration is investigating and plans to issue a report on by the end of the summer.
The latest embarrassment on Washington’s transit system comes as Metro officials are trying to make the case that the agency has finally made an about-face on safety.
“You have to ask yourself, ‘How could this have still happened?’ The answer isn’t very pretty,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), a longtime Metro supporter who has been critical of the system’s management. “I think it says a lot about the culture of mediocrity that has unfortunately descended upon Metro over a decade. And it puts lives at risk. There has been an indifference to safety violations such as this.”
Firing the operator provided a much-needed message about accountability, he added.
“It sends a signal to the commuting public and the workforce that higher standards must be met. This is a very basic management principle that seems to kind of have gone by the wayside,” Connolly said.
The near miss occurred Tuesday about 7:15 p.m. when a Red Line train failed to stop at a red signal at the Glenmont station and traveled through a section of track known as a switch. That sent the train headlong into the path of another coming in the opposite direction.
“Fortunately, our co-workers saw the train in time to get out of harm’s way,” said Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld.
Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly declined to provide more details — including how many passengers were on the two trains and the train operator’s experience — saying that an investigation is continuing. Metro investigators did not find any sign of a signal system failure or a mechanical defect on the rail car, Wiedefeld said in a statement.
Metro also would not discuss what role its operation control center, which communicates with train operators and monitors rail traffic, may have played.
The subway has an automated safety system that is designed to prevent collisions when two trains operate on the same stretch of track, but Metro officials also declined to say whether that feature was operating as intended.
Wiedefeld decided to fire the operator because, he said, it was clear that the person “failed to follow proper communications protocols.”
David Stephen, a spokesman for Local 689 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, the union representing train operators, declined to comment on specifics of the incident or whether the fired operator plans to file an appeal.
In a sharply worded email to Metro employees, Wiedefeld said he was shocked and disappointed by the operator’s “blatant disregard,” adding that the error was “profoundly troubling.” Normally, a train operator would not be immediately terminated after one red-light violation, but Wiedefeld said that this was an exceptional case.
“Some of you may think this action is harsh,” Wiedefeld wrote. “I want you to know that I took this step because I am deeply concerned by the disregard this Operator demonstrated for the well-being of his co-workers — namely the track walkers on the ground — as well as for his passengers, and those passengers and employees on other trains.”
Tuesday’s incident could be seen as especially egregious given the FTA’s stand that red-light overruns are one of Metro’s most pressing problems.
In 2013, Metro launched what it called a “safety blitz” to remind operators how critical it is to stop at red lights.
But last year, the FTA warned of the “pervasiveness and seriousness of this problem” and said that despite outside warnings, the situation was getting worse, with “more red signal overruns in 2015 than in either of the preceding two years.”
“They are a pervasive problem that threaten passengers and WMATA employees alike,” the FTA said in a statement Friday. The federal agency took over responsibility for safety last year after a deadly smoke incident near the L’Enfant Plaza station. “FTA will continue to work with WMATA as it develops a robust safety culture and encourage strict adherence to rules that put the safety of passengers and workers first.”
Former Metro board chairman Mortimer L. Downey said the July 5 incident illustrates a fundamental problem.
“It’s just not the kind of precision operation they should be running. The rules that are in place are not there to offer suggestions,” Downey said. “If you’re trying to show you’re paying attention and dealing with safety, this is kind of an easy one.”
Broadly, both the control center and train operators “have got to improve their game,” Downey said.
In February, miscommunication between Metro’s operations center and a train operator was at the heart of a separate red-light incident. An operator ran a light near the Smithsonian Metro station and came to a stop only after realizing that he was headed toward another train loaded with passengers.
The operator misheard an instruction from his controller at the operations center about which station to head to during an unusual maneuver to avoid a problem on the rail. The controller also failed to catch the mistake after the operator repeated back the tangled instruction.
A consultant hired by Metro concluded last year that a “big rush-rush culture” contributed to the red-light running in the system. This year, in response, Metro altered its schedule to give operators more time for walk-arounds and safety checks of their trains before their first run. Metro also put in place a system that permits operators to hand off their train to a fresh colleague at the end of the line if the original operator needs “relief.”