A day after Metro’s top two leaders stepped down after about half of its train operators were found to lack necessary recertifications, the transit agency began navigating fresh safety challenges Tuesday under an interim general manager while continuing to field criticism over management practices.
As is his habit, Ly said, Off brought a brown-bag lunch and ate with employees in Metro’s break room at the transit agency’s L’Enfant Plaza headquarters. Off kept to routines, trying to project stability to workers rocked by two days of turmoil.
On Sunday, Metro officials announced they discovered a training lapse involving about 250 train operators — nearly half the workers in that position — who had not gone through a recertification process the agency requires every two years. Metro said it lost track after allowing waivers during the pandemic, then failed to put time limits on the waivers. The discovery forced Metro to pull 72 operators who were most delinquent, creating a staffing shortage that is causing longer waits for some trains.
The delays are the latest challenge for a transit agency contending with multiple crises — some pandemic-induced, others of its own making — as it seeks to gain public trust and lure riders. A months-long train shortage and shift to telework have left the transit agency subsisting on federal relief money that will begin to run out next summer without significant ridership growth.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) on Monday said Metro’s lapses were part of a “management problem,” a sentiment shared by other elected leaders in the region. By afternoon, Metro’s board had swiftly called an executive session, followed hours later by the announcement that six-year general manager Paul J. Wiedefeld, 66, would move his retirement from June 30 to Monday. Chief operating officer Joseph Leader, Metro’s second-in-command, also resigned after six years.
Off has not named a successor for Leader, Metro said.
In a statement Tuesday evening, Off said he is focused on Metro’s safety challenges, restoring the system’s suspended 7000-series rail cars and opening the long-delayed Silver Line extension to Dulles International Airport and Loudoun County.
“We are determined not to miss a step, and everyone I have spoken to externally and internally today has offered their support and assistance,” he said.
Off, Metro’s assistant general manager for rail services for three of his almost 10 years at Metro, led the SafeTrack program in 2016 and 2017 that crammed three years of maintenance into a year. He left in 2018 to become a consultant, only to return in 2020 as a vice president of project implementation and construction.
Almost immediately in his newest role, Off was confronted Tuesday morning with more damaging news. The Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, the regulatory agency that discovered the lapses in recertification, released an order that restricts how Metro shifts track power on and off. The commission said it found too many instances in which power was turned on without Metro ensuring that workers weren’t on the track — posing an elevated risk for electrocution or other hazards.
The commission ordered Metro to conduct a safety review of its power-restoration protocols and to limit how often it turns power on or off. It also said Metro must reemphasize safety procedures to rail operations traffic controllers, saying “redundant safety procedures are required to be followed for the safety and survival of their colleagues” who have to conduct repairs, inspections or other tasks on tracks.
The power-restoration issues, much like the recertification lapses, are a recurring problem for Metro.
The safety commission’s 16-page order listed multiple instances of close calls. The oversight agency said Metro doesn’t follow safety guidelines, even after creating a special power desk at its rail operations control center (ROCC) to guide workers through the process of turning on power.
The commission said it has instructed Metro to follow procedures over the past three years.
“In each instance, the [commission] explained to [Metro] the safety deficiencies and the serious risk to Metrorail personnel, has required immediate safety improvements, and has provided [Metro] with the opportunity to protect the safety of its personnel through long-term changes,” the commission’s order said. “However, Metrorail has yet to effectively provide for that safety, and continues to ignore processes and procedures that Metrorail intended to make the system safer.”
The order has a section titled “Metrorail’s culture of noncompliance,” in which it cites the controller and supervisor over the power desk for acting “on their own notes and recollections.”
“Metrorail’s culture that accepts noncompliance continues to permit procedural shortcutting,” the order said. “Without cultural change, no amount of training will be sufficient.”
Ly said Metro acknowledges the safety commission’s findings. She said the transit agency has developed solutions to address problems that surfaced during one “near miss” incident the commission cited.
“The process of cultural change is neither swift nor simple and this incident compels us to continue to expand our transformation efforts into areas of the organization that intersect with the ROCC,” Ly said in a statement.
The safety order is another admonishment for a transit agency that has gone through upheaval since mid-October, when 60 percent of its rail cars were suspended because of a safety defect uncovered during a federal investigation into a derailment. The suspension of Metro’s 7000-series cars brought a train shortage that has resulted in long waits as the region is recovering from the pandemic and as Metro is desperately seeking to recover riders and fare revenue.
The growing safety issues that prompted abrupt leadership departures late Monday damaged the legacy of Wiedefeld, who had repeatedly said safety was his priority.
Hired in 2015 months after a stalled train filled with smoke outside the L’Enfant Plaza station, killing a passenger and sickening others, the former Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport chief executive began his tenure in an unprecedented way: He shut down Metrorail for a day, allowing maintenance workers to examine the track and infrastructure for safety hazards.
He helped to usher in the SafeTrack program, shutting down stretches of the rail system for days to catch up on long-neglected maintenance and upgrades. He went against public sentiment to curb Metrorail’s hours of operation to give maintenance workers more unobstructed time on the tracks.
Until the pandemic, the millions of dollars spent repairing track, upgrading stations and fixing escalators was followed by a rise in Metrorail ridership in 2019 — the first in years. The pandemic quickly sent those numbers tumbling, dealing transit agencies across the country historic ridership losses. Metro’s fortunes have only spiraled deeper.
Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D) said Tuesday that residents have grown tired of the transit agency’s repeated mistakes.
“Folks are frustrated with Metro and rightfully so — these repeated safety breaches and continued service disruptions are unacceptable,” he said in a statement. “Metro’s top priority has got to be addressing these issues and ensuring safe and reliable operations. I support whatever steps it takes to get there — and I’ll continue pushing for updates and more transparency here.”
The region’s four senators are among those who have kept closer watch on Metro as its troubles have mounted in recent months. All have called for a culture change at the agency.
The Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 689, which represents most of the agency’s workers, said in a statement it had a positive working relationship with Wiedefeld that it hoped to continue into new leadership.
Union officials said they have fielded complaints from people who say train operators should have known they were falling out of compliance. In reality, union officials said, Metro had shut down the retraining program, making the lapses unavoidable.
“Recertifications for rail operations are not like going to the DMV to get your license renewed,” the union said in a statement. “These are programs run by the authority and managed by the authority that were not offered to our members.”