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New federal inspection reports find old Metro problems persist

FTA inspectors noted six instances in January and February 2017 when they spotted stretches of track with lose or defective fasteners. (Federal Transit Administration)

If all goes according to plan, the Federal Transit Administration will hand over safety oversight of Metro within the next year to the new Metrorail Safety Commission.

In the meantime, however, FTA inspectors continue to conduct day-to-day assessments of Metro’s trains and infrastructure. And they continue to find problems.

In the most recent batch of inspection reports released by the FTA, Metro was dinged for a range of defects in track maintenance and train operations — defects that suggest while that transit agency’s systemic problems may have lessened, certain problems persist.

According to the report, there were six instances in January and February when federal inspectors found “code black” track conditions.

In each of those instances, inspectors found defective fasteners, the mechanism that helps keep the steel rails stable and fixed to the ground. Fasteners can be installed improperly; wear-and-tear from passing trains also can cause them to loosen over time.

The length of tracks that were deemed to lack properly-installed fasteners ranged from 11 feet to 15 feet.

Metro officials did not take the tracks out of service or impose speed restrictions — despite the fact that FTA inspectors had classified them as critical safety defects in need of urgent repair. Instead, inspectors said, Metro supervisors classified the defects as high-priority “maintenance” issues, rather than urgent “safety” issues requiring an immediate track shutdown.

FTA finds tracks in ‘black condition’ but Metro routinely reclassifies them, keeping them in service

It’s an example of a mismatch in the FTA’s and Metro’s use of rail inspection terminology, which has caused problems in recent months, leading Metro to be accused of downgrading “black condition” defects to avoid interrupting service and causing delays for passengers.

“While the [Metro inspection manual] makes a distinction between a safety and maintenance defect, the color black can be associated with both,” Metro Chief Safety Officer Patrick Lavin said at a Metro board meeting in March, by way of explanation. “I agree — that is confusing.”

Metro board member Robert Lauby, who also is chief safety officer at the Federal Railroad Administration, also called it “confusing” that black condition defects continue to be documented by the FTA without tracks being pulled out of service or speed restrictions put in place. But he acknowledged at that same Metro board meeting that FTA officials have determined there was “no disagreement on the fact that [defects] were appropriately classified.”

“FTA doesn’t have any issue with the way WMATA has classified these defects,” Lauby said.

Metro offers defense on recent safety issues

FTA inspectors also noted several instances where blown light bulbs caused “poor lighting conditions” in spots on between Woodley Park and Bethesda stations on the Red Line, and between Rosslyn and Court House stations on the Silver Line.

The inspectors documented areas where Metro continues to grapple with standing water from tunnel leaks, or electrical cables that are resting on the ground rather than being bolted to the walls — potential fire hazards.

And on multiple occasions, inspectors noticed pieces of relay rail left on the tracks , which posed a tripping hazard.

As Metro Safety Commission gets underway, there’s housekeeping to be done