The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Top Metro leaders step down one day after agency announces training lapses

General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld moves up his retirement date, while Chief Operating Officer Joseph Leader resigns

A Metro train pulls up to the Naylor Road station with the Suitland Parkway in the background. (Mark Gail/The Washington Post)

Metro’s board on Monday accepted the immediate resignations of its top two officials, one day after the transit agency announced that about half of its train operators were found to have lacked retraining and testing required for recertification.

General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld was to have retired June 30 after six years leading the agency. His departure was accelerated after the operator lapses surfaced, a discovery that prompted Metro to pull from service 72 operators who have been noncompliant for more than a year. The move led to longer delays for rail passengers and brought widespread criticism from the region’s elected officials.

Chief Operating Officer Joseph Leader’s resignation was also accepted Monday. Leader, a longtime transit industry veteran who previously worked in top positions at New York City Transit, had been with Metro since 2016.

Metro’s board met in executive session at 3 p.m. Monday, a meeting that had not been on the schedule as of last week. The transit agency announced the departures hours later.

Metro Board Chairman Paul C. Smedberg did not respond to a request for comment late Monday, but in a statement he said Andrew Off, Metro’s senior vice president for capital projects, will serve as interim chief executive until newly appointed general manager Randy Clarke joins Metro later this summer.

Clarke, chief executive of the Austin-based Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, was named Wiedefeld’s replacement last week, although his start date hasn’t been determined. Off was appointed interim chief executive during last Thursday’s regular board meeting to work with Wiedefeld during the transition.

“The Board appreciates Paul’s and Joe’s commitment to [Metro] over the last six years,” Smedberg said in the statement. “We feel the timing is right for Interim General Manager and CEO Andy Off to lead the organization through this critical transition period, with a continued emphasis on safety. Safety is and will continue to be our top priority.”

In a separate statement released through Metro, Wiedefeld said the time was right to provide a “more timely transition” to Off.

“I believe conveying all authority of the General Manager’s office to Mr. Off better positions him to address the challenges that came to light this week, while preparing for the transition to the next CEO,” Wiedefeld said. “Stepping aside a few weeks ahead of schedule is in the best interest of the agency and its workforce, whom I have been deeply proud to lead over the last six years.”

The changeover comes one week after Metro touted ridership increases and the hiring of Clarke. After the positive news, the revelation that nearly half of Metro’s train operators had not received required refresher training and testing sank the agency back into familiar territory — a self-inflicted setback that reversed progress on reducing wait times while further frustrating riders and elected officials who questioned the transit agency’s management practices.

The decision to remove the train operators extended delays on a rail system already saddled by a shortage of trains amid a federal safety investigation that has left most of its rail fleet unusable for months.

Metro pulls 70-plus train operators for retraining, warns of delays

Metro’s internal breakdown in tracking training compliance, generally a routine task for transit agencies — but one with safety implications — follows similar lapses dating back at least seven years. It’s the latest disruption to upend the nation’s third-largest transit system, which is trying to lure back riders who shifted to telework or other modes of transportation during the pandemic.

Before the change in Metro’s leadership, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said Monday that she was disappointed in Metro’s inability to provide the region with reliable service at a time when many people are resuming social activities, returning to workplaces and coming to the city for vacations. She said she supports funding that boosts Metro safety and capacity, but she cited a “management problem” in the latest obstacle.

“It has been disappointing to residents, workers, and visitors that, as D.C. has reopened, Metro has not been able to deliver the level of service we expect and deserve,” Bowser said. “This latest setback is frustrating for everyone who relies on Metro.”

In explaining Metro’s most recent problem, transit officials said the agency granted waivers or extensions for recertification in 2020 because the pandemic made classroom training unavailable. The issuance of waivers should have ended later that year, Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said.

She said there were no “checks and balances” in place to make sure waivers didn’t extend beyond 30 days.

Recertification, which includes refresher courses with supervised testing in rail yards and on the mainline, will continue for three or four months until the lapsed operators are up to date on training. The sudden removal of operators will result in an operator shortage, Metro said.

Waits on the Green and Yellow lines increased by five minutes to 20 minutes Monday, and extra trains that had been used to fill in for breakdowns or to increase frequencies during busy periods might not be available this month.

The lapses were discovered by the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, an independent agency created by Congress in 2017 to oversee safety after years of repeated problems. Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said in a statement that he was grateful for the commission’s discovery of an issue that threatened safety on the system.

“Train operators are fundamental to Metro safety,” said Connolly, chairman of a House subcommittee that requires Metro to provide Congress with periodic performance and safety updates. “Training lapses for operators are deadly serious. This is yet another preventable service and safety setback for Metro caused by letting a safety issue languish.”

Some of the safety commission’s findings were included in an audit last month. In follow-up investigations in recent weeks, commission spokesman Max Smith said the panel learned that Metro had stopped refresher training courses.

Metro has a history of not providing operators with adequate and regular refresher training.

Metro train operators lack refresher training, audit finds

The safety commission’s April audit said Metro was cited as early as 2015 for not having a consistent recertification program. That year, a Federal Transit Administration safety management inspection identified problems that included train operator recertifications “not occurring as scheduled.”

In 2016, the Tri-State Oversight Committee, an agency that preceded the safety commission, found that Metro “was no longer providing annual refresher training to train operators, train operators were signing off on rule changes without fully comprehending them, that a one-day 7000 Series rail car familiarization course was insufficient, and that training personnel did not get sufficient lead time to develop training curricula for new [Metro] initiatives as they were not included in the process from the beginning.”

“There are no more adjectives left to describe the mismanagement of [Metro],” Maryland Del. Marc A. Korman (D-Montgomery) tweeted Sunday night. “Having to remove your own operators because of a failure to have them recertify as required demonstrates an inability to undertake even basic functions.”

Metro officials said the transit officials took immediate action to correct problems.

“We continue to investigate how and why waivers were issued and will report back to the [Metro] Board when all information is gathered,” Ly said in a statement.

D.C. Council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) said she was disappointed but will continue to support Metro, especially with looming financial trouble ahead.

“We’re presented with a golden opportunity to increase transit service just as ridership is picking up again, and it’s an understatement to say that [Metro] has not risen to meet the moment,” Nadeau tweeted Monday.

The union that represents most Metro workers, Local 689 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, will help Metro rotate operators in and out of training. The union declined to comment Monday on the recertification lapses.

Metro’s staffing woes come on top of a train shortage that began in October, when the safety commission suspended the agency’s 7000-series trains — about 60 percent of its fleet — after a defect was found during a National Transportation Safety Board investigation into a derailment. The defect causes car wheels to shift outward, making trains unstable.

Metro is looking at how to restore the trains through a regular inspection process that would check for the slow-progressing defect on a daily basis.

Metro officials have said they hope to begin incorporating the suspended cars this summer, but the agency has yet to submit paperwork to the safety commission for approval.

The lack of available cars has created lengthy waits and more frequent delays at a time when the transit agency is hoping to recover riders. Starting next year, $2.4 billion in federal coronavirus aid that Metro had been using to fill budget holes will start to run out.

For riders such as Burke resident Chris Townsend, an administrator at a D.C.-based nonprofit, the latest delays are reigniting discussions about whether to stick with Metro. Townsend resumed commuting in mid-March, when his workplace began calling employees back into the office.

“If the trains start to be slow and crowded, that — combined with the rise of covid cases — would probably be like the last straw for me,” Townsend said. “There’s no good that comes from riding the Metro at that point. It’s just a no-win situation.”