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Metro disputes audit claim that senior managers created ‘toxic’ environment at rail control center

A rider is seen on a train passing through the Federal Triangle Metro station earlier this month in Washington. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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Metro on Friday disputed claims made in a scathing audit of its Rail Operations Control Center, saying its own outside review could not corroborate specific accusations against senior managers while not denying the need to improve workplace culture.

The transit agency released its review Friday, nearly three months after the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission released a 50-page audit that labeled Metro’s control center a “toxic workplace” where employees were racially and sexually harassed, safety protocols went ignored and morale was so low that the center remained perpetually and dangerously understaffed.

Metro’s rail control center a ‘toxic workplace’ where procedures put riders at risk, safety report says

The audit from the safety commission, an independent agency created by Congress two years ago to oversee Metrorail safety after a litany of problems, had wide-ranging effects. It drew rebukes from congressional members in Maryland and Virginia, prompted Metro to restructure leadership of the ROCC and led to the reassignment of a senior vice president after the audit accused her of coaching employees to ignore safety protocols and interview requests from auditors.

While Metro’s new report aimed to clear two supervisors, the safety commission said Metro’s investigation backed the findings of the original audit and further underscores serious ROCC workplace issues.

“We appreciate the full corroboration of our audit report’s findings by [Metro’s] memorandum,” safety commission Chief Executive David Mayer said in a statement. “The [safety commission] stands by our thoroughly investigated and deeply researched Rail Operations Control Center audit report.”

Metro hired an outside law firm to investigate claims against Senior Vice President of Rail Services Lisa Woodruff, and its probe extended to other claims the audit made against current or former supervisors.

Some are concerned that audit shows top Metro managers may be blocking reforms

In a statement, Metro said its outside investigation did not substantiate the most serious allegations of a toxic culture at the ROCC, or claims of racial discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation by senior managers. But the report does not deny that harassment and unprofessional behavior occurred within the ROCC or that managers are involved.

Top Metro official reassigned after audit alleged she undermined safety oversight

Still, the pushback from Metro underlines tension between the two entities. The creation of the safety commission grew out of the Jan. 12, 2015, electrical malfunction of a Metro train outside the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station that generated a mass of smoke that engulfed a stalled train, sickening scores of passengers and killing one rider. It drew attention to Metro’s poor safety record and lack of adequate supervision.

The Federal Transit Administration took direct safety oversight of Metro in 2015 until federal transportation officials and Congress created the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission in 2018.

Metrorail safety oversight turned over to new commission

Since then, the safety commission has ordered Metro to come up with corrective plans for more than 70 safety issues or violations. The commission has repeatedly said ROCC managers resisted the commission’s orders for reform, and the Sept. 8 audit was a culmination of safety violations and workplace issues that the commission said Metro has left unaddressed for years.

It also said Woodruff “told controllers not to talk to the [safety commission], to resist required corrective actions, and to paint a rosy picture of the ROCC for an internal Metrorail transformation team.”

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A day after the safety commission audit was released, Metro reassigned Woodruff to temporarily serve as a technical adviser. The transit agency hired San Francisco-based law firm Littler Mendelson to look into the assertions against Woodruff and Deltrin Harris, the former director of the ROCC, whom the audit accused of encouraging employees to shirk safety protocols.

After three months, the law firm came back to Metro with a report saying it couldn’t confirm the claims the audit had made against Woodruff and Harris, who has since been reassigned.

“This report exonerates Lisa Woodruff and Deltrin Harris of the charges contained in the [safety commission] report and repeated in dozens of media accounts,” Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said Friday. “While this bell cannot be unrung, the record must be set straight to restore the good names of transit professionals whose reputations were unfairly tarnished.”

Metro shakes up leadership of embattled ROCC

The new 12-page report’s goals were to investigate whether the ROCC has fostered a toxic culture, Woodruff’s orders and comments to employees, any incidents of harassment or threats, unwanted physical contact, and “significant” turnover among controllers.

“Based upon the interviews, documents and other information, [the law firm] did not substantiate that Ms. Woodruff and/or Mr. Harris engaged in harassing conduct . . . or otherwise threatening conduct targeted at ROCC controllers,” the report said. “Moreover, Littler did not substantiate that Ms. Woodruff and Mr. Harris were responsible for the [safety commission’s] perceived ‘deep-seated toxic workplace culture’ in the ROCC.”

However, Metro’s report did say employees reported “observing conduct that a person could perceive as sexual harassment.” It also said workers heard “racial and homophobic comments” at the ROCC, including some made by managers.

“Disrespectful and unprofessional conduct is commonplace in the ROCC,” the report said. “. . . We did not substantiate that senior management created and/or condoned a hostile work environment based on race, sex, or any other protected category. It is apparent, however, that a culture of disrespect and unprofessional behavior exists in the ROCC.”

First-line managers, the report said, use profanities at controllers and often suspend workers for mistakes, adding that “the ROCC is demanding and can be daunting,” although this is not the fault of the supervisors — but “the nature of the work.”

The safety commission said it stood by its report.

“We remain focused not on placing blame, but on ensuring that Metrorail makes the necessary changes to its safety practices and procedures to make the system safer for customers, workers and first responders,” commission Chairman Chris Hart said.

Metro said it has committed to overhauling the ROCC’s training and safety procedures to improve professionalism, help workers cope with the stress of monitoring the massive rail transit system and improve recruitment and retention.

The law firm’s report and Metro did not dispute the bulk of 21 safety issues or violations the safety commission audit had raised.

Metro’s plans to correct safety deficiencies in its rail operations center sent back for more work

A Metro spokesman said Woodruff will continue to serve Metro in a senior-level capacity but will not return to her former post because the transit agency has restructured the ROCC. In a shake-up after the audit, Metro removed the ROCC from Chief Operating Officer Joe Leader’s purview and turned supervision over to Andrew Off, a vice president and former assistant general manager who had been in charge of construction projects. Off is now vice president of the ROCC and Strategic Transformation.

In October, Metro hired Edward Donaldson, a 30-year veteran at the Federal Aviation Administration and the FAA’s former system operations security director, as ROCC director, replacing Harris and as an interim director.