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Here are 10 of the biggest problems facing Metro, according to FTA

A new 7000-series train prepares to depart from the Pentagon Metro Station on April 14 in Arlington. (Photo by Matt McClain/ The Washington Post)

Customers and observers of Washington’s Metro system know that the region’s transit agency has problems. And now there’s a damning report to back that up.

Federal Transit Administration officials started reviewing the operations of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority shortly after after the deadly Jan. 12 Yellow Line incident. A train stopped in a tunnel just south of the L’Enfant Plaza station was engulfed in noxious fumes, sickening scores of riders and causing the death of one woman. The FTA released its findings in a Safety Management Inspection report Wednesday.

[Metro train system’s operation center is understaffed and chaotic]

According to the report, here are 10 of the biggest problems facing the Metro system:

1. Metro’s Rail Operations Control Center is significantly understaffed

The agency has 34 rail train controllers to “fill what is arguably the most challenging job at WMATA, providing 24-hour, seven-day-a-week coverage,” the report says. The staff may work six or seven 12-hour shifts per week, despite the agency having the authority to hire 54 controllers. On top of that, the report says, Metro controllers are often asked to complete tasks beyond what is required of those working similar jobs in other transit systems.

2. The required re-certification process for controllers has not occurred

Traffic controllers require annual re-certification, though this has not happened since 2012. This is a “significant breach in WMATA’s program to ensure their on-going proficiency in WMATA’s operating requirements, rules and changing infrastructure and equipment,” according to the report. Because of low staffing levels, controllers are not removed from duty for training purposes.

3. The Rail Operations Control Center is distracting

The Rail Control Center also contains desks for many additional operations, including the Maintenance Operations Center for Power, elevator and escalator operations, Office of Emergency Management, the social media desk, the public address announcer and more. All the while, Rail Operations Control Center personnel are not using headsets and the multiple speakers broadcasting radio channels throughout the room create distractions and “background interference on radio communications.”

4. Radio discipline is poor

Investigators say personnel do not listen long enough to ensure the channel they are broadcasting into isn’t already being used before beginning transmission. Word-for-word repeats and the required name identifications are rarely observed, according to the report. The FTA also observed “confusion in communication resulting from lack of protocol for language and terminology used over the radio — to include 100 percent word-for-word read-back for safety-related instructions and unusual train movements.”

5. Lack of formal procedures, manuals and checklists

The traffic controllers are largely agency veterans who have held many different jobs within the system. Consequently, they have “established a strong culture regarding how things should be done” and “prefer to run the Metrorail system largely based on their past experience and the information ‘in their heads.'” An official manual with Metro Rail Operations Control Center’s office procedures and interpretations of rules and duties was unavailable.

6. Rail traffic controllers used their personal cellphones in the control center

During the week-long federal review employees were observed using their cell phones while on duty. The report found that the cell phone policy is vague and easy to violate, further contributing to distractions in the control center. “WMATA has a strong electronic device policy imposed on all other safety-sensitive personnel but has elected to exclude the ROCC,” the report reads.

7. There are no industry standard rule reviews 

Officials did not observe traffic controllers working with each other or management to review procedures. Instead, most of the interactions between supervisory personnel and the controllers occurred during activities related to troubleshooting trains or single-tracking.

8. Trouble recruiting new controllers

WMATA has unsuccessfully tried to recruit and retain new controllers and dispatchers with military, aviation and transportation experience over the last few years, investigators wrote in the report. In the most recent class of 12 new trainees from external agencies, only four made it through the program and only two of the four traffic control trainees are actually working in the control center. The FTA found that the training program is inadequate, with errors and missing sections in the training materials and PowerPoint presentations used to train the controllers on their responsibilities and how to use the Advanced Information Management system. The report also found that, due to potential losses in overtime, there is a financial disincentive for veteran controllers to support changes that would make hiring practices easier.

9. The accident investigation process is flawed

The transit report’s accident investigations do not generally look at the performance of the traffic controllers, but rather focus on the train operators. This means that these controllers have not been able to learn from their errors like other groups within the agency have.

10. WMATA’s radio system is still poor in some areas

Although it has improved, “there is still major distortion and feedback in the field, and from the ROCC, and a significant number of radio dead spots still exist.” Many WMATA employees ranked “poor radio performance” as their top safety issue. “I can’t hear you, Central” is a frequent radio transmission from the field,” the report reads.