Metro track walkers enter the tunnel between Waterfront Station and L’Enfant Plaza stations. (Amanda Voisard/For the Washington Post)

Perceptive Metro riders may notice something new at the end of the subway platforms: workers talking to one another.

Metro has instituted a new safety regulation aimed at reducing the risks to workers and track inspectors who walk along the tracks during service hours.

The new protocol relies on a simple concept: If you want to make sure people understand instructions, tell them face-to-face.

According to the regulation, workers who are planning to inspect the tracks during service must post an “advanced mobile flagger” — a person who stands at the end of the station platform to warn train operators to slow down and watch for workers on the tracks.

Previously, those kinds of instructions were delivered over Metro’s radio communication system. But recent  close-calls — and urgent demands from federal regulators — prompted safety officials to ramp up protections for track walkers and inspectors.

Train operators are told face-to-face that they need to slow to 10 miles per hour, keep watch for people on the tracks, and use special hand symbols to ensure that all workers have safely stepped onto the raised platform and out of harm’s way.

The flaggers even have a script on exactly what to say:


Metro “flaggers” must read this script to train operators who may come across workers inspecting or traveling along the train tracks. (Source: Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority)

The new procedures are not a perfect solution. The script is long. In fact, it takes about 40 seconds to read out loud, if you’re talking at normal speed. In the exacting world of train schedules, that’s a significant amount of time. And safety officials know that workers might get antsy to keep things moving. In a “frequently asked questions” bulletin sent to staff, Metro safety officials made it clear that the advanced mobile flagger (AMF) must read the full script. Every time. No exceptions.

The protocol also requires the crews on the tracks to ensure that they post a flagger at a nearby station before they plan to walk onto the tracks — a step that has been ignored by workers at least once since the new regulation was put in place in April.

And in a presentation released Monday for the Metro board, agency officials acknowledged that it’s an inelegant solution.

Safety officials, and the National Transportation Safety Board, want Metro to find ways to use high-tech alerts and alarms to warn operators about the potential for collisions with workers on the tracks during service.

“As this solution requires extensive testing, Metro is taking a low tech approach (i.e., AMF) that moves us closer to the spirit of the NTSB recommendation, while continuing to pursue the high tech solutions,” Metro safety officials wrote in the document.

Officials are conducting a pilot program where workers wear armbands embedded with signals that emit audible alarms and flashing lights when a train is approaching. They want to see if the devices could be used throughout the system to help protect workers and increase safety.

But until that technology becomes widespread, Metro officials say they believe that good-old-fashioned communication is the next best option.