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Some Metro employees still denying federal inspectors access

SafeTrack repairs were originally scheduled to conclude in June 2017. Now, that end date is up in the air. (Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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You’re a federal inspector charged with conducting safety checks on a transit system. You arrive at your assigned property — in this case Metro — and, as you’ve been trained to do, identify yourself and present your credentials. You’re wearing the required protective equipment: composite-toe boots, goggles and a reflective vest. And you explain that you’d like to access the platform to perform an inspection.

Metro’s response: Thanks, but no thanks. Feel free to use your SmarTrip card like everyone else, though.

Recent incidents highlight how Metro employees have sparred with inspectors from the Federal Transit Administration in their safety oversight of the system. The reports, part of a batch of inspection data released by the FTA last week, reflect some Metro employees’ apparent skepticism of the FTA, but also call attention to the learning process that federal oversight has ushered in.

Federal inspectors report a mixed bag on Metro SafeTrack improvements

Take Aug. 15, for example.

Inspector Medenia Dashiell arrived at Braddock Road Metro Station and presented her identification — wearing all the required equipment — only to be denied access to the platform. Twice.

“(Station manager) informed me that as a ‘contractor’ I could not go up to the platform without a WMATA escort; however, I could go up with the use of my SmartCard because WMATA would not be held liable,” Dashiell wrote.

Dashiell retrieved her SmarTrip card and, this time, federal credentials, from her car. She walked inside and explained that her credential granted her permission to perform an inspection from the station platform.

The station manager wouldn’t budge, according to the report.

“I then used my SmartCard to gain access to the platform to conduct the inspection,” Dashiell wrote. FTA says its protocols allow inspectors to perform platform inspections without a Metro escort.

The FTA reports shed light on recurring miscommunications between Metro employees and federal inspectors over the course of the year. In February, for example, an operator denied access to an inspector who presented his credentials and said he’d like to ride in the cab of the train. The operator’s reply: get permission from “central”, referring to Metro’s Rail Operations Control Center.

Meanwhile, the train proceeded along its route to New Carollton. At that station, the operator told the federal inspector ROCC had denied him access to the cab.

“At no point from L’Enfant Plaza to New Carrollton Station was this information relayed to the [inspector],” the report reads.

The same day, a train operator granted access to a federal inspector on the Green Line at Fort Totten, before changing his or her mind. The inspector had noted “deficiencies” such as a drink stored on train’s control panel.

A few minutes into the inspection, the operator told the inspector she had to call ROCC, and she disembarked at U Street.

When she called, a control center employee asked “who the…inspector was” and “what they were doing on the train,” according to the report. ROCC told the inspector her presence was an interference in an apparent smoke incident at Ft. Totten, according to the report. FTA said the inspector hadn’t been made aware of any emergency.

The oversight agency demanded that Metro re-instruct the employee who had denied them access.

In June, FTA reported that its inspectors had been denied access to Metro trains and the Rail Operations Control Center at least 15 times since last October. Metro said in a statement Monday those access issues have been addressed.

SafeTrack workers violated safety standards in dozens of incidents, FTA says

“During the transition to FTA oversight, WMATA and FTA identified a need to establish a protocol for FTA access to WMATA property,” Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said. “That protocol is now in place and we have heard no further concerns.”

It wasn’t just any platform inspection on Aug. 15. Dashiell and her colleagues had previously inspected the same area on July 5, during a SafeTrack surge from National Airport to Braddock road. They noted the degraded crossties on one track. Following a derailment of a Silver Line train later in July — likely caused by degraded wooden ties — Dashiell returned to see whether the ties at Braddock had been replaced.

SafeTrack closures: These D.C. Metro lines and stations will be disrupted in the next year

They hadn’t.

Ties are long wooden slabs that secure the running rails in place on above-ground sections of track.

“I walked the entire station platform and noted several ties that were so deteriorated that ballast (gravel) was pushing thru the top,” she wrote.

Metro has not yet said whether it replaced those ties. Speed restrictions were recently imposed on Blue and Yellow Line trains passing through the area.

Later that month, FTA inspectors and Metro employees clashed again, in an incident that my colleague Martine Powers said “indicated that perhaps Metro’s staffers were taking their newfound adherence to ‘safety culture’ a little too far.”

It happened Aug. 29. Inspector Terrell A. Williams said an operator stopped her train when she spotted an inspection team ahead, claiming they hadn’t given her a proper signal to proceed. Williams said the team gave the train plenty of space to pass.

Wrote Williams: “our party was 1500 feet in front of the train, in a position of safety and that we provided the proceed signal.”

But the operator wasn’t convinced.

“The operator could clearly see that we were in the clear but notified ROCC anyway,” Williams said.

FTA: ‘There was no traffic pattern’ during some SafeTrack surges