Metro maintenance workers are seen on tracks near Ballston, performing repairs and replacements as part of the SafeTrack program. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

It was May 6. More than 100 Metro track workers and inspectors gathered near Bethesda station. They had a scheduled five-hour window in the middle of the day to conduct crucial, uninterrupted work on the outbound side of the tracks, and they came ready — accompanied by four prime movers and an oversight agent from the Federal Transit Administration.

Just after 10 a.m. — the end of morning rush hour — the team radioed to Metro’s Rail Operations Control Center and asked for permission to step onto the tracks and get started.

And then they waited.

And waited.

And waited.

In an episode that was later described by an FTA inspector as a “tremendous waste of resources,” those dozens of workers stood immobile on the side of the tracks for more than two hours — delayed, it turned out, by radio communications issues with the ROCC.

By the time they finally got hold of an official in the command center, they had used up more than half of their allotted maintenance time on the tracks.

The incident was described in an inspection report publicly released by the FTA last week, and it’s a painfully clear example of one of Metro’s most significant problems: Unreliable communication with the command center, known as the “nerve center” for all of Metro’s daily rail operations, where controllers and dispatchers dole out instructions to train operators, track inspectors and maintenance workers.

The command center has been a main focus of criticism by the federal government: Poor communication within the ROCC was cited as one of the reasons for the confusion and delayed emergency response during last year’s deadly L’Enfant Plaza smoke incident.

And just last month, a packed train was stuck in a Red Line tunnel for so long that two people self-evacuated onto the tracks — an incident that was caused largely by the fact that the ROCC failed to change a signal along the tracks, and then failed to get in contact with the train’s operator over the radio.

But the May 6 incident with the dozens of stranded maintenance workers makes it clear: Metro’s radio communication struggles aren’t just dangerous. They’re also a big waste of time.

“Better communication between the ROCC and field personnel is needed to better utilize WMATA resources more efficiently,” the FTA inspector wrote in his report after that incident. He ultimately used his cellphone to contact three different high-level Metro officials to finally get permission for the crews to start their work.

“WMATA wastes tremendous resources,” the inspector added, “when dozens of work crew are standing by to gain access to track when communications are not working between the ROCC and field personnel.”


A federal inspection report recounted an incident in which Metro repair crews could not access tracks for two hours because of radio communication issues. (The Federal Transit Administration)

And episodes of apparent wasted time like this one are exactly why Metro has received some pushback from members of the agency’s board when it comes to General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld’s proposal to permanently end late-night service. Wiedefeld wants to provide more time for work crews to conduct repairs and perform inspections in the middle of the night.

Wiedefeld has argued that a key reason for Metro’s infrastructure problems is the fact that undisturbed maintenance time on the tracks has been whittled down over the years:  In 1998, Metro had 43.5 hours per week to conduct inspections and repairs; when they introduced late-night service, that amount of time had diminished to 33 hours. Since the start of SafeTrack, Metro has increased the amount of weekly maintenance time to 39 hours. Wiedefeld wants to increase that weekly allotment to 41 hours.

But some board members, including Leif A. Dormsjo, director of the District Department of Transportation, have asked whether Metro needs to take better advantage of the time it already has.

“Are we locking in inefficiencies?” Dormsjo asked at a meeting last month. He later added that he won’t support a plan for late-night service cuts until he receives “more proof that the additional eight hours is absolutely necessary.”

Last month, Metro’s chief safety officer said he has a team working on methods to help maintenance crews use late-night track time more efficiently, and to set up crews and equipment in strategic spots throughout the system so they can spend less time setting up and more time working on repairs.

But to tackle the problem of wasted track time, Metro will need to solve radio communication problems. The long periods of radio silence are only one of Metro’s communications problems, as outlined by the hundreds of the recently-released inspection reports: In recent months, federal inspectors noted that many of the messages they hear during ROCC inspections are garbled, indecipherable, too quiet, or overlap with other messages.

Inspectors noted that operators sometimes forget the “radio repeat back rule,” which requires them to repeat back the instructions they just heard, to make sure they understood them correctly.

And radio coverage is still spotty in some parts of the system — to the point that train operators at the Greenbelt rail yard frequently use their personal cellphones to communicate with supervisors in the rail yard tower.

And then there’s a recurring issue in which people carrying portable radios often accidentally push the emergency button, sending an alarm over the radio waves — an ongoing problem that is both dangerous and annoying.

Metro knows that all of these are serious impediments: Wiedefeld has commissioned a team out outside experts from other transit agencies to conduct a peer review on the ROCC. They’re scheduled to conduct the study this month.

And for many Metro observers, the results of that review can’t come soon enough. At a board meeting last month, member Robert Lauby, who is chief safety officer for the Federal Railroad Administration, diagnosed the the ROCC as Metro’s most significant problem.

“Everything that happens on Washington Metro,” Lauby said, “begins and ends with the control center.”