Metro’s train delays are projected to worsen as the agency abruptly yanks from service more than 70 operators who have been working without undergoing a mandatory retraining process for at least a year, officials announced Sunday.
Extra trains the transit agency was dispatching for breakdowns, greater rush-hour frequencies or special events may not be available over the next few weeks, the agency added.
The sudden operator reduction will almost certainly frustrate riders already out of patience over a seven-month-old train shortage strained by an increase in passengers as people resume social activities and in-person work. A quarterly performance report released last week showed that customer satisfaction among rail and bus riders has fallen steadily over the past year.
Officials said complications from the coronavirus pandemic had exacerbated recertification challenges, but it remained unclear Sunday how one of the nation’s largest transit agencies lost track of the issue.
“The Board finds this unacceptable and extremely disappointing,” Metro Board Chairman Paul C. Smedberg said in a statement. “We support Metro management’s decision to immediately remove from service operators who became out of compliance more than a year ago as a first step. The Board directed Metro management to provide a full accounting of how and why this occurred and develop a plan to ensure it is remedied as fast as possible.”
Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said Metro’s operations management team does track certifications but issued pandemic-related waivers in 2020 because of the inability to provide adequate social distancing for training classes and because trainees had travel concerns.
The issuance of waivers over coronavirus concerns should have ended in 2020, Ly said, and “there were no checks and balances in place to ensure waivers did not extend beyond a reasonable time frame, typically 30 days.”
Ly said top Metro leaders did not know waivers were being granted or extended and ordered operators with the most out-of-date credentials into retraining while they changed how waivers are granted.
Ly said needing recertification does not mean an operator is not certified.
“As a distinction, all operators have certifications,” she said. “The operators in question have not been recertified, which allows for a refresh of the rules, reinforcement of knowledge and evaluation.”
The Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, the regulatory agency charged with overseeing Metrorail safety, first identified the lapses in a recent review, which prompted Metro Chief Safety Officer Theresa M. Impastato to review all operators’ certifications.
The commission identified that Metrorail was not meeting its operational refresher training and recertification requirements for an audit of rail operations that was released last month, according to commission spokesman Max Smith. In recent weeks, the commission learned that Metro had stopped train operator recertifications entirely.
“The [commission] communicated the seriousness of this safety issue to Metrorail and gathered additional information over the last few weeks, so we are pleased that the chief safety officer and Metro board are now aggressively addressing the matter,” Smith said.
The 72 train operators being immediately removed from service for recertification are the operators who have been working without recertification the longest — or since at least May 2021. Recertification is earned after classroom training sessions and supervised testing in rail yards and on the mainline, Metro said in a statement.
Metro’s latest predicament coincides with a train shortage that has forced the agency to operate at reduced service with longer-than-normal wait times since mid-October. The safety commission ordered about 60 percent of its fleet out of service after a federal investigation into a Blue Line derailment found a defect affecting the wheels of the 7000 series, Metro’s latest and most advanced model of trains and rail cars.
Without the series’ 748 cars, Metro has been forced to rely on older models, some 40 years old and nearing retirement. The smaller, older cars, coupled with lower frequencies, have driven many passengers away because of crowding and social distancing concerns as coronavirus case numbers continue to fluctuate. Those concerns will only grow with longer wait times and fewer trains in service.
The dual crises are hitting Metro as the agency needs to recover as many riders as possible. It faces a projected budget shortfall of at least $300 million, which could begin next summer, when $2.4 billion in federal coronavirus aid starts to run out. The stimulus has helped bridge the gap of lost fare revenue over the past two years and helped Metro stabilize as the commuting it banked on lagged because of remote work.
“The Board is deeply concerned about the impact this operator shortage may have on our customers and the region,” Smedberg said. “However, the Board made it clear safety is the top priority and while Metro has made strides in recent years, this issue demonstrates that more work must be done to ensure an organizational-wide safety culture.”
The process to recertify more than 250 rail operators will take two to three months, Metro said. Metro is working with union officials at the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents most Metro employees, on a plan to rotate operators and accelerate refresher training and testing.
Although Metrobus operators don’t have the same recertification requirements, they are required to go through a two-day refresher training course periodically. Metro’s safety department is reviewing whether its more than 2,500 bus drivers are up to date on refresher training, Metro said.
“We are identifying bus operators who have lapsed refresher training and will take steps to ensure compliance with Metro’s rules,” said Chief Operating Officer Joe Leader.