Undertrained workers, confusing inspection manuals, a lack of communication — yup, sounds like Metro.
According to a newly released report by the American Public Transportation Association, Metro’s track inspection and maintenance program is in need of a major overhaul … which is something we already know from a variety of sources. (See: “Smithsonian derailment,” “East Falls Church derailment,” “continuous single-tracking.”)
The APTA report was written in April but wasn’t released by Metro until last week. Metro board member Leif A. Dormsjo asked pointedly at a meeting of the panel why the document hadn’t been made public. (Dormsjo also is director of the District Department of Transportation.)
There isn’t much in the 15-page report that hasn’t already been explored in reports released in recent weeks by the Federal Transit Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board. Just like those reports, many of APTA’s findings are profoundly worrisome — specifically, they highlighted the shockingly low amount of experience necessary to become a track walker.
The group also suggested that Metro work harder to clear debris from tracks in stations. (“The prevalence of materials strewn around the right-of-way creates a negative impression for the public and sends a message to employees that poor housekeeping is tolerated,” they said.)
And they want Metro track workers to be permanently assigned to specific sections of track “to increase accountability and sense of ownership.”
Still, it wasn’t all bad! In a few instances, APTA experts were way more generous than the FTA or the NTSB when it came to Metro’s track work program: They said they believe Metro inspectors and maintenance workers are “safety conscious” and “an enthusiastic group committed to on-going improvements.”
The problem, APTA said, is that training programs are insufficient, and there are few formal ways for inspectors and repair workers to communicate with one another about what to prioritize on the tracks.
Here’s some of the good and the bad from APTA’s report:
Good: Track inspectors want to be safe.
“Track Walkers encountered by the panel were all safety-conscious and committed to their functions,” APTA experts said, “however, there is a gap between intended inspection processes and what actually transpires in the field.”
Not-so-good: Track inspectors are “hired directly off the street.”
According to APTA’s report, “There appears to be no minimum aptitude or practical testing aligned to the track inspection functions for hiring. Track Walkers are allowed to be hired directly off the street without prior track knowledge and experience.”
The current training program takes 18 weeks; APTA thinks it should be longer. The organization’s experts also want Metro to come up with a way to incentivize existing Metro employees to choose to switch to becoming track walkers; they argue that people with experience working on tracks would make better inspectors.
Not-so-good: Metro’s inspection manual is “difficult to navigate.”
APTA officials said that the manual “has grown in content beyond its intended purpose” and that the color-coding system for track defects is inconsistent with other parts of the manual.
Good: There’s a CliffsNotes version, and it’s actually pretty good!
“A pocket version of the manual … provides a practical tool for field use.”
Good: Repair workers are “enthusiastic”!
From the report: “Track Engineering is comprised of an enthusiastic group committed to on-going improvements to the track infrastructure.”
Not-so-good: Different departments fail to communicate with one another.
This is a problem that has been raised about Metro time and time again, and it’s no different here. From APTA: “The Track Engineering group is aware of the need for the integration and close relationship with the track maintenance/inspection functions, however there does not appear to be any formalized process that delineates how Track Engineering, Track Maintenance and Track Inspection should interact.”