This weekend's biggest disruption in rail service will split the Blue Line. (Linda Davidson – The Washington Post)
(Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Metro officials, appearing at a safety meeting Thursday,  provided few details about what a top official at the transit agency called a rash of red-signal violations by train operators. Train operators are sometimes given permission to pass a red signal, but when done without authorization from the control center, running a red signal risks a collision with another train, according to experts.

While the number of red-signal violations at Metro has declined over the last two years, a Metro official told the board’s safety and security committee, there have been five such incidents in the last few months.

In those incidents, the train operators said they either didn’t “fully understand the communication” with Metro’s control center, their “attention was diverted” while running the train, or they simply didn’t follow the instructions they were given by the control center, according to Hercules Ballard, managing director of rail transportation at Metro, who briefed the board members.

He said all five of the train operators had been properly trained, and most of them had worked without prior problems. The average time on the job was four years, although one train operator had only been on the job for less than a week, he said.

“Each one knew what [he/she] should have done,” he said. He said all of the operators “will be retrained and disciplined.”

The incidents were over a period of about two months, between April 4 and June 2, and occurred at the following Metro stations: Prince George’s Plaza, Van Ness, Friendship Heights, McPherson Square and Van Dorn, according to Metro.

At the briefing, Ballard said one of the incidents happened at McPherson Square. He seemed to describe it at one point as a near miss, but then changed that as he was questioned by a board member. It remained unclear how close the trains had gotten to one another.

Alexandria Mayor Bill Euille, who is on Metro’s board, asked Ballard Thursday how train operators could be distracted while driving a train.

“How can an operator not be paying attention?” Euille asked. “What is he doing playing cards? They’re not supposed to be on a cellphone.”

Rob Troup, Metro’s No. 2 official,  said the agency was taking what he called a “rash” of red-signal violations seriously and using it as a reminder of the proper procedures of what to do for operators.

Euille seemed to find it surprising that train operators would need reminder stickers in the cab of a rail car of what to do at a red signal.

“If you can’t remember to stop at a red [signal] than you should not be in control of the train,” Euille said.

On Friday, Richard Sarles emphasized that Metro was making a change in its procedures of what train operators should do. They will now leave the doors of the rail cars open until they get a “proceed signal,” which is basically a green light to go. Because a train can “not draw power” with the doors open, he said, an operator won’t be able to move the train and can’t run a red signal.

“It’s like putting your car in park until you have a green light,” Sarles said.

The briefing came at the same meeting where Metro officials — in a rare appearance with top union official Jackie Jeter — said the agency and union had developed a program for rail workers to anonymously report incidents “close calls” to U.S. Department of Transportation officials. That program will start July 1.