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Metro commits to more stringent safety standards to protect track workers

General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld orders new guidelines, citing too many instances of trains near work zones

A worker walks along the tracks at the Van Dorn Street Metro station in Alexandria. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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Instances of trains operating near Metro track workers have prompted the transit agency to commit to more stringent safety standards that officials say will increase worker protections.

The order issued late Thursday comes after four incidents since August in which trains improperly moved into work zones, which restrict or prohibit train traffic. Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld told Metro workers in a memo that the violations prompted him to review Metro’s rail safety standards manual, simplify it and update it to include higher levels of protection.

Potentially dangerous near-clashes between track workers, trains and other rail vehicles over the past year have increasingly drawn the attention of the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, the independent agency that oversees rail safety. The incidents often involve miscommunications and mistakes stemming from Metro’s embattled Rail Operations Control Center and on-ground work crews.

“I was deeply concerned to learn about four roadway worker protection (RWP) incidents since August, during which trains and work equipment were improperly placed into work zones where employees believed they were protected from train movements,” Wiedefeld wrote. “When we see patterns emerging, it requires that we step back to make sure that we are doing everything we can to prevent errors that could lead to serious consequences.”

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The efforts to avoid work zone collisions are one piece of what Metro expects will be a sprawling set of new track safety measures the agency says are months away from use. It will take time to adopt the standards, revise procedures, update Metro’s track safety manual and retrain thousands of maintenance workers, engineers and others whose jobs involve walking on tracks, Metro spokeswoman Lynn Bowersox said.

Metro has reported 26 roadway protection events — when trains or other rail vehicles enter a restricted work zone, endangering crews on the ground — to the safety commission this year, commission spokesman Max Smith said. None has resulted in injuries, but fast-moving trains with 40-ton rail cars make any incursion into a work zone a “close call,” he said.

In an August 2020 incident, a Metro construction inspector mistakenly walked on a Red Line track at Fort Totten to join a work crew that was on the Green and Yellow lines, according to the commission. His mistake was compounded by the use of a cellphone to communicate, which is forbidden on the track, instead of a radio, which provides greater clarity and might have alerted others to his whereabouts.

A train operator spotted the worker from behind and stopped as the train approached.

“The investigations have identified specific areas of confusion or where people aren’t fully trained or Metro hasn’t given their workers a full understanding” of safety guidelines or policies, Smith said.

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Past roadway mistakes have been deadly. The National Transportation Safety Board said human error was the probable cause in the deaths of three Metro track workers during two separate accidents in 2006.

The NTSB said an Automatic Train Control technician was killed because he failed to stand clear of an approaching Red Line train at the Dupont Circle station. Two workers inspecting track were fatally struck between the Huntington and Eisenhower Avenue stations because the NTSB said they did not maintain an effective lookout for trains. The train operator also did not stop or slow down while workers were in the area, according to Metro.

Metro created its Roadway Worker Protection manual a decade ago and has added several protective measures in recent years. About four years ago, the transit agency created the role of advanced mobile flagger, a worker who stands at the end of a station platform to warn train operators in person before their train heads toward a work zone.

Augustine “Gus” F. Ubaldi, former engineering director for the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority and a consulting engineering and track supervisor for Penn Central Transportation Company, said workers should not be allowed on tracks until they understand the train restrictions put in place

Managers in the field must clearly communicate with rail controllers and request the restrictions to ensure crew members are safe.

“Whoever asks for the work authority has to make sure that it’s clear to his workers, clear to the dispatcher — and the dispatcher has to understand what those work limits are so he doesn’t send these trains into you,” Ubaldi said.

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Wiedefeld did not specify how each recent work zone violation happened but said he supports Rail Operations Control Center Director Ed Donaldson’s decision to retrain and retest the controllers in charge at the time of each incident.

“Despite the safety critical nature of the errors, we are committed to helping our people get it right, and that means investing in them with second chances and the instruction they need to prevent recurrence,” he said in the memo.

The Rail Operations Control Center, or ROCC, which is responsible for coordinating all Metrorail train traffic, has come under tight watch since the safety commission released an audit in September 2020 labeling it a “toxic workplace.” Bullying, racial and sexual harassment, willful ignoring of safety policies, miscommunication and consistent staffing issues were among problems the audit said created conditions that threaten passenger safety.

The scathing report earned reprimands from the region’s U.S. senators and led Wiedefeld to restructure ROCC leadership and take more direct control of it.

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In strengthening Metro’s track safety policies, Wiedefeld said he has asked Metro Chief Safety Officer Theresa M. Impastato to adopt Federal Railroad Administration standards. Metro officials say they believe the federal standards, which are required of railroads but not rail transit, go beyond most U.S. transit system procedures in making sure track workers are safe.

“While some of the procedures need to be tailored to meet our physical requirements, our goal is to ELIMINATE train movement in areas where employees are working to maximize their protection,” Wiedefeld wrote.

As the new safety standards are developed over months, the ROCC is under a “safety stand down,” in which a technical skills training team reviews procedures and safety rules for when controllers stop all traffic to a work zone. Bowersox said the team will also closely review all four recent work zone incidents.