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After safety lapses, Metro board says agency is getting back on track

Metro has recertified about 20 percent of its train operators who were found last week to be missing required training

Passengers climb the steps at Metro Center station in Washington. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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Metro has recertified about 20 percent of its train operators who were found last week to be missing required testing and refresher training, a lapse that led to a leadership shake-up.

Metro board members during a regular meeting Thursday talked of “lessons learned” after recent safety lapses, saying the agency under interim general manager Andy Off already is providing the public with greater transparency and communication.

“The board’s been very concerned about what we’ve seen and certainly what occurred in several instances,” board member Matthew F. Letourneau said. “We’re paying close attention to what the [Washington Metrorail Safety Commission] is saying, and others, but you have really focused on those issues, particularly on the certification issue.”

The recertifications and Metro’s efforts this week to reincorporate the suspended 7000-series trains back into its fleet are welcome developments for the transit agency as it attempts to restore shaken public confidence after recurring safety issues and charges of management failures. It culminated in the resignations of General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld and Chief Operating Officer Joseph Leader on May 16.

Metro will reinstate some 7000-series trains during summer

The recertification lapses affect 250 train operators, or about half of Metro’s employees in that position. They occurred after the agency said it issued waivers during the pandemic, then didn’t keep track of the process. D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) was among the public officials who said the problems demonstrated a management problem at the agency. Wiedefeld and Leader resigned hours later.

The Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, which oversees Metro, issued an order the next day restricting the transit agency’s ability to turn track power on or off because of recurring procedural violations that the commission said potentially threatened the lives of personnel who might be on or around the track.

The problems compounded a seven-month train shortage created by the safety commission’s October suspension of the 7000 series, which makes up 60 percent of Metro’s fleet. The rail cars were pulled from service after a federal investigation into a Blue Line derailment uncovered a defect on several cars that pushed wheels outward. The shortage has led to longer waits, frustrating riders who are heading back to work for the first time since the pandemic began.

Off, who was Metro’s senior vice president of capital projects, told board members that 45 operators have completed recertification. The agency is averaging more than five recertifications a day, Metro said.

Metro’s recurring problems raise questions about oversight, management

Off told Metro board members Thursday that his priorities include getting all 748 of the 7000-series cars reinstated — a process the agency began last week when the safety commission approved Metro’s plan to return 64 of them to service. Off also cited the opening of the Silver Line extension to Dulles International Airport and Loudoun County, which has been delayed repeatedly since 2018.

“Our focus is going to be on getting our operations house in order, most notably addressing the issues that have been noted with train operator certification and power desk operations,” Off said. “And then also getting after the 7000 series return-to-service plan to better increase frequency on the system for our customers. And then get Silver Line Phase 2 across the finish line.”

Off said wait times have decreased as recertified train operators return to work. Meanwhile, rail ridership continues to rise, standing at nearly 40 percent of pre-pandemic levels — almost double a year ago, Off said.

Metro is on target to restore 64 rail cars to service this summer, Off said — the most that staffing will allow because cars will require daily inspections for any sign of the defect. Metro expects to bring the rest of the series back after it can automate inspections using wayside inspection stations — machines that can check wheels for irregularities — after the system is tested. The first of the machines was recently installed, but Off said he couldn’t estimate when the rest of the rail car series would be restored.

Metro Chief Safety Officer Theresa Impastato said in an interview after the Thursday board meeting that Metro stopped recertification training when the 7000 series was suspended last fall because those were the trains that operators used during sessions. Metro has received permission from the safety commission to use the trains again for educational purposes, Impastato said.

Off will serve as interim general manager until newly hired Randy Clarke moves to D.C. this summer to lead the agency. Clarke is finishing his job as chief executive of Austin’s public transit system.

Metro wins reinstatement of some suspended rail cars

Metro Board Chairman Paul C. Smedberg praised Off for his efforts and said they demonstrated “lessons learned.”

“We hope that continues, and I’m sure it will under Mr. Clarke and yourself moving forward,” he said.

Other Metro Board members echoed Smedberg, saying the transit agency has moved in the right direction in recent days.

“This is a time of transition,” Metro board member Tracy Hadden Loh told Off. “And what I’ve learned so far from the briefings that we’ve received is that we can’t create a culture of safety with a culture of chaos or with strictly taking punitive measures and looking for people to punish.”

Smedberg announced at the meeting that he plans to testify before a Maryland House subcommittee Wednesday to discuss “Metro’s oversight and governance.” Del. Marc A. Korman (D-Montgomery) said in an email that Smedberg was asked to speak after Metro’s recent troubles.