Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld confirmed Thursday that he has now fired 21 members of the agency’s track inspection department as part of an investigation into falsified inspection records.
Wiedefeld told members of the Metro board safety committee that the terminations include 16 track inspectors and five supervisors — about one-third of the existing department. Fourteen other workers have also been disciplined as part of the investigation, which began last August and is now concluded.
Though the investigation was prompted by a derailment near East Falls Church in July, Wiedefeld acknowledged Thursday that most of the firings had nothing to do with the stretch of defective tracks that caused the derailment. Instead, he said, investigators believe they uncovered inspection reports that were falsified for other parts of the Silver Line, rather than the specific crossover where the derailment occurred. He did not say whether inspection records were found to be falsified on other lines of the system.
“They were systemic issues we were having in that department,” he said.
The investigation placed a particularly close focus on the role of supervisors in the alleged falsifications. Wiedefeld fired nearly half of his staff of track inspection supervisors, five out of a team of 12. He said there is no evidence that there was any falsification of attendance records or time sheets, and the employees’ alleged wrongdoing did not rise to the level of criminal charges.
Metro has hired 10 outside inspectors to fill the spots of the fired employees. The transit agency is working to hire and train new staff to permanently increase the ranks of the department.
And the agency has brought in an outside company to write a new, updated inspection manual for the department. That project will be finished by the end of March, Wiedefeld said, at which time all of the remaining inspectors on staff will go through retraining.
Despite the fact that the firings have decimated the ranks of the track inspection department within the last six weeks, Wiedefeld said he is not worried about the agency’s ability to perform frequent, quality checks on the tracks.
“We have a good track department,” Wiedefeld said. “In terms of our management folks and line people and our contractors we have out there, we’re very confident of what we’re seeing out there in terms of the inspections.”
Metro later confirmed that Jovito Azurin, one of the track inspectors interviewed by Metro safety officials in the days after the derailment, is no longer working for Metro — though it was unclear whether he was fired or if he quit his job.
In that interview, which was released by the National Transportation Safety Board, Azurin acknowledged that he was responsible for inspecting the section of the tracks where the derailment occurred. A Metro safety officer noted that his inspection reports listed the same track measurements, month after month — a pattern that caused the safety officer to be suspicious.
“After three years, how did the measurements all be exactly the same?” the safety officer asked Azurin, who maintained that the numbers were accurate. “You’re not going to tell me that the track didn’t move a sixteenth of an inch or an eighth of an inch or a quarter of an inch over that time.”
Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents Metro employees, vowed to fight the firings, saying Metro hasn’t provided sufficient evidence to back them up. The union contends that none of the firings are tied directly to the East Falls Church derailment, citing termination letters sent to the fired employees.
“We are going to defend our members,” second vice president Raymond Jackson said after the board meeting. “We’re gonna investigate the situation. We’re gonna look into all the facts. And if the facts show that they did something wrong … at the end of the day, the process is what it is.”
Jackson blamed what he called the agency’s top-down culture that emphasizes meeting deadlines and completing paperwork over the safety of riders.
“If you give me an assignment to do 37 switches, and you know that it’s an un-completable task,” Jackson said, “if you’re my manager, then why are you giving me this assignment?”
During the meeting, Chief Safety Officer Patrick Lavin also updated board members on several serious safety mishaps that hit the agency this month, including a Tuesday incident in which a door on a Yellow Line train opened suddenly while the train was paused on the elevated platform approaching Reagan National Airport station.
Lavin said the train operator told Metro safety officials that he was taking off his jacket in the cab of the train while the train was stopped — and accidentally hit the control panel with his elbow, activating the button that opens the door.
“He kind of came clean and said he had made an inadvertent activation of the doors,” Lavin said. “He basically took ownership.”
Lavin also updated the board on a Jan. 4 incident, in which a worker helping to prepare for single-tracking between Fort Totten and West Hyattsville sustained a serious electric shock.
According to Lavin, the worker was carrying a metal gauge rod — a tool used to help secure the tracks in place if there is a defect — and tried to place it on the tracks. The third rail was still electrified, and came into contact with the rod.
The worker was sent to a trauma center with severe injuries to one side of his body, and remains in a rehabilitative facility. The supervisor who was standing with him, and came to his aid, also sustained a flash burn, but is now back on the job, he said.
Lavin said the supervisor and worker failed to follow official protocol, because they began to work on the tracks without checking to ensure that the third rail power had been shut off.
“So the supervisor failed his duties in this particular situation?” Metro Board member Michael Goldman asked.
“That would be my assessment,” Lavin said.
Lavin said Metro’s safety office continues to investigate the incident, but added that there should have been a better safety briefing at the beginning of the project. He also is considering increasing requirements for protective equipment that could prevent a similar accident in the future.
Additionally, Lavin updated the safety committee on a Jan. 5 incident in which a worker fell down a vent shaft, sustaining non-life-threatening injuries. That worker is “undergoing rehabilitative treatment,” he said.
That incident happened while the worker was cleaning debris from a vent shaft. While walking around the area, he stepped onto the cover of an alternate shaft and fell more than 30 feet.
Lavin said the worker did not take the required steps to ensure that where he was walking was safe, but also acknowledged that the area did not have proper signage to alert workers of spots where it was dangerous to stand.
As a result of the incident, officials have temporarily halted all vent shaft cleaning until they have confirmed that all employees have been properly trained, and that signage around vent shafts has been improved.