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FTA issues 13 corrective actions for Metrobus

An FTA  report issues 10 safety findings and 13 corrective actions for Metrobus. (Robert Thomson — The Washington Post)

Metro has not adequately addressed the rising number of assaults by passengers on bus drivers who are at the forefront of the nation’s sixth largest bus network, according to a federal report released Wednesday.

The federal inspection of Metro’s safety management operations also found shortcomings in daily bus inspections, personnel training and communications procedures at the agency’s central bus control center.

Although the most serious safety issues in the Federal Transit Administration report pertain to Metrorail, the federal agency also issued 10 safety findings regarding Metrobus. It ordered 13 corrective actions to be completed by the bus system that serves about 465,000 weekday passengers in the Washington Metropolitan area.

[FTA report: There are significant flaws in Metro’s safety management system]

At the top of the list of concerns, the federal agency found a rising number of assaults on bus drivers, which include drivers being punched, slapped or spit on, or having objects thrown at them.  Metro’s efforts to address the problem have been constrained, the FTA report said, by chronic difficulties with fare-box malfunctions — which can lead to driver-passenger disputes — and the limited Metro Transit Police resources assigned to the bus system.

“Metrobus employees at all levels of the organization identified their most significant safety concern as WMATA’s ability to protect bus operations personnel from violent, disgruntled, or disruptive passengers and members of the public,” the 116-page report said.

Metro officials had no immediate comment on the findings on Thursday.

[Here are 10 of the biggest problems facing Metro]

The FTA found that bus inspections required before every trip are not completed, documented, or monitored in compliance with Metro’s own standard operating procedures or with industry standards.   Drivers say they have 10 minutes from check-in to pull out, and by the time they get to their bus they have no time left to properly conduct what should be a 15-minute inspection.

“This has the possibility of exposing WMATA to liability in the case of death or injury resulting from a bus accident,” the report said. And it also “affects the ability of maintenance to carry out its function, increases the potential for road calls, and lowers the safety profile of buses put into service.”

Employees in the Bus Operation Control Center have no formal checklists to help guide them in doing their jobs, the report said. And the protocols they need to follow are heavy on paperwork and can delay response to emergency situations. Metrobus personnel lack adequate training, and many bus drivers say they have have not received training of any type in years.

[FTA report on Metro safety]

David Stephen, a spokesman for the Amalgamated Transit Local 689, which represents most of Metro’s train and bus operators and other workers in the system, said every operator should follow the standard operating procedures of the system and conduct the required inspections. But he said management has the responsibility to look and see if that is a problem and ensure the drivers have enough time to conduct the inspections.

Some employees, Stephen said, don’t report safety concerns our of fear of being fired.  He also said the union has advocated for more protections for bus drivers, who he said in general don’t feel safe in their interactions with the public, and have called for more transit officers across the board, in stations and on buses, and for safety and emergency training.

Assaults against bus drivers increased nearly 37 percent, according to the FTA report, which says that 175 assaults have taken place against bus operators since 2012.  Often those attacks are the result of fare-evasion disputes. Some operators said fare-box malfunctions contribute to the abuse because passengers become accustomed to riding for free and get violent when the fare box is operational and they are asked to pay.

An officer's attempt to make a passenger pay his fare was captured on video as the encounter turned violent on a Washington, D.C., bus. (Video: WUSA9)

Assault incidents are more widespread in the New Shepherd Parkway division, which serves riders in Southwest and Southeast Washington. The assaults impact attendance, productivity and the level of stress of drivers and others in the agency, the report said.

Metro has been training bus operators and discouraging them from getting into arguments over fare evasion with passengers. The agency has also been installing driver shields on buses, focusing the effort on the most troubled spots.  The FTA is directing Metro to expedite an agency-wide strategy to address the cause of assaults on bus operators, and incorporate training, police resources and community outreach.  Metro must also resolve the problems with fare boxes, the report said.