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Metro blames regulator for possible Silver Line delay, crowding as tension grows

The Washington Metrorail Safety Commission says Metro would have more trains if it used methods that the commission recommended to phase them into service

Metro General Manager Randy Clarke speaks as he and others celebrate the opening of Metro's new headquarters last month. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Metro could open the long-delayed Silver Line extension to Dulles International Airport in time for Thanksgiving travel, but transit executives say there aren’t enough trains. Rail cars have become so crowded at times that conditions present a health hazard during the pandemic, Metro said, adding that it has no other cars to put on the tracks.

Metro executives this week publicly detailed their frustrations for the first time with the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission over the year-long suspension of the transit agency’s 7000-series rail cars. Metro General Manager Randy Clarke said transit officials have submitted data that proves Metro can safely phase in many more cars, but the safety commission is standing between passengers and reliable service.

“With only half of our 7Ks available, we cannot meet all of the region’s needs for Metrorail,” Clarke told reporters Tuesday at Metro’s headquarters. “It’s simple math. As we seek crowding solutions, support increasing ridership, and work to extend service, the equation of doing more with less no longer works.”

Tensions have stewed for years between the transit agency and its regulator, which Metro said is extending its shortage of rail cars, passengers and fare revenue by limiting the amount of rail cars it can use based on evidence transit officials say is missing, contradictory, unsupported or not being shared. Metro has hitched its turnaround strategy to the return of the series, saying riders have grown weary of long waits amid a pandemic-era shift to telework.

Metro leaders said they are asking for clarity from the commission on how to regain the transit agency’s entire fleet for the first time since October 2021. Transit executives said the commission’s limitations run counter to an earlier decision and conflict with broader safety standards imposed on test trains that carry Metro workers.

Tensions simmer as Metro ridership grows during train shortage

The commission defended its work, saying it has shown Metro the steps it must take to add more cars, but that the agency hasn’t used those data-supported approaches.

“The [safety commission] will continue to be driven by safety data and will continue to be open if Metro is interested in a collaborative, iterative process,” safety commission spokesman Max Smith said Wednesday.

Transit officials said they need about eight more trains to open the second phase of the Silver Line to Loudoun County in Virginia. Metro said the 11½-mile extension is “operationally ready” to begin passenger service by Thanksgiving.

Metro went public with its dispute Wednesday, two days after the safety commission rejected its latest request to use more 7000-series trains. It came the same day that Metro’s inspector general released a report critical of communications between the two agencies. Both agencies have also briefed members of the region’s congressional delegation, indicating they are at an impasse.

Virginia Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine, both Democrats, urged Metro and the safety commission to stop waging “turf battles” and to “get their acts together” to open the Silver Line extension.

“We are making it clear to both agencies: It’s time to get this done,” they said in a joint statement.

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), chairman of the House Oversight subcommittee on government operations that Metro reports to annually, acknowledged the tension and said both agencies need to work toward returning the 7000-series trains. Connolly was instrumental in creating the safety commission.

“The 7000 series shutdown has been exacerbated by breakdowns in communication with the [safety commission] and a resistance to oversight within [Metro],” he said in a statement last week. “I hope in resolving these issues we can continue to see progress towards getting all 7000 series back on the tracks.”

Metro’s Office of the Inspector General released a report Wednesday that Connolly requested nearly a year ago about how the wheel safety issue went undetected by Metro and the commission. The report also assessed communications and cooperation between the agencies, finding that the safety commission does not keep records, making it difficult for Metro to substantiate or validate claims the commission makes in audits or orders.

The report also found instances of Metro challenging the commission’s authority during records requests and the commission describing actions by Metro as manipulative. It recommended that the commission improve communication and “establish clear and concise, mutually agreed upon risk-based safety priorities” so Metro can respond to the commission’s expectations without confusion.

Smith said the commission keeps records but does not share everything with Metro because it couldn’t conduct audits and investigations without keeping some sources confidential. He said the safety commission’s orders, audits and other communications with Metro should be clear as they are based on safety standards Metro has adopted.

“This particular report documents that we do our job well,” he said of the report.

Connolly said the report confirms the need for both agencies to improve communications.

Metro has a long history of frustrating its regulatory agencies, in some cases ignoring repeated federal safety recommendations or corrective actions. In creating the safety commission, congressional leaders wanted an entity with more enforcement powers that could stand up to Metro and hold it accountable.

Metro withdrew request for more trains on Independence Day

Congress created the commission in 2017 to be a watchdog of Metro’s safety protocols, coming after years of violations, train breakdowns and emergency mismanagement that culminated in the 2015 death of a passenger from smoke inhalation after a train stalled in a tunnel. Multiple federal investigations found Metro’s slow emergency response, communications breakdowns and poor coordination exacerbated problems as smoke poured into a packed train during an electrical fire.

The event led to the Federal Transit Administration overseeing Metrorail safety in fall 2015, replacing a panel of representatives from the District, Maryland and Virginia known as the Tri-State Oversight Committee. It disbanded after Congress and federal officials determined the panel was ineffective.

The FTA relinquished control after Congress created the safety commission, empowering it with the ability to issue orders like the one that suspended Metro’s 7000-series trains.

The commission began oversight in 2019 and has released 13 audits, more than a dozen “official actions” and more than 100 rulings that require corrective action plans.

The safety commission is led by Chair Christopher Hart, who headed the National Transportation Safety Board between 2014 and 2017, and chief executive David L. Mayer, who was the first chief safety officer of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority and a former managing director of the NTSB.

Tensions between Metro and the commission emerged quickly.

In its first year, the commission released a scathing audit of Metro’s rail operations center (ROCC), calling it a “toxic workplace” in which employees were bullied, racially and sexually harassed, and told by managers to ignore authorities and operating procedures. The audit also indicated that Metro’s then-vice-president of rail services “told controllers not to talk to [auditors], to resist required corrective actions, and to paint a rosy picture of the ROCC for an internal Metrorail transformation team.”

Metro denied the claims and launched an internal investigation, hiring a law firm to conduct an independent investigation that cleared the former employee.

More recently, Mayer told safety commissioners last month that the federal investigation into the 7000-series trains unearthed a 2015 report from a Metro engineering consultant. The consultant had studied wheel movements in Metro’s fleet and cited problems with the assembly of wheels and axles.

The report raised fresh questions about the safety of Metro’s tracks and whether tracks contributed to the wheel defect. Mayer also said Metro began dealing with wheel movements longer than it had publicly disclosed — as well as on older models of cars. He also indicated that current Metro engineers had been unaware of the 2015 report.

Metro pushed back on Mayer’s comments, saying the transit agency willingly provided the NTSB with the report.

“We respect the safety commission and its goal and its oversight, and hopefully it will stay focused on that and [in] working with the team,” Metro Board Chairman Paul C. Smedberg said in September.

Federal investigators continue to search for the origin of the mysterious defect that causes 7000-series wheels to move apart, making trains more likely to derail.

Investigators say the malfunction progresses slowly, which has prompted the safety commission to let Metro return some cars under a plan that requires regular wheel screenings. The safety commission approved a Metro plan in December 2021 to return the entire series to service, provided Metro inspected the wheels weekly.

Metro chief safety officer Theresa Impastato said the interval came from “exhaustive” data analysis of known wheel failures that occurred before the Blue Line derailment on Oct. 12, 2021, that spurred the NTSB investigation, as well as data from fleetwide inspections after the derailment.

Metro train derails on Blue Line

Impastato said data showed that in the worst-case scenario, the defect could appear 10 days after an inspection. Metro subtracted three days to err on the side of safety, she said.

A Metro consultant, however, told transit officials they could get more data with daily inspections, Impastato said. Metro requested changing the plan, and the safety commission approved it. However, she said, the daily-inspection recommendation was strictly to collect data, and not for safety reasons.

Metro’s efforts to bring back the cars ended about two weeks later when the safety commission found the transit agency deviated from its plan. Metro leaders said the transit agency wasn’t equipped with the necessary tools to make precise measurements. The safety commission reimposed the suspension.

Fallout grows from Metro’s train shortage amid safety probe

In June, Metro asked the safety commission for permission to return eight trains, or 64 cars, to service. The commission approved the plan, but it changed the inspection frequency from weekly to daily. In September, the safety commission expanded Metro’s daily allowance to 20 trains, with inspections every four days.

Transit officials said they aren’t sure why the safety commission settled on four days.

“There was no conclusive analysis that showed a differential of risk between a two-day interval, a four-day interval or a seven-day interval,” Impastato said. “We simply don’t have any data with which to base that restriction on.”

Metro leaders pointed out that the safety commission had allowed Metro in May to run tests on the 7000-series series as long as inspections took place every seven days. Customers weren’t allowed on test trains, but Clarke noted that employees were.

“There’s an inconsistency there,” he said, questioning whether “every human being on the train is treated the same way.” He added Wednesday: “We are responsible for both the safety of our employees and customers.”

Smith, the safety commission spokesman, said rail operators are trained to handle some risk. During emergencies, he said, operators are instructed to offload passengers and maneuver trains to safety.

He said the safety commission also has more knowledge after the year-long NTSB investigation than it did in December.

Since late September, Metro has asked the safety commission twice to reinstate its entire fleet of 7000-series cars with weekly inspection intervals. The most recent request was submitted last week, then rejected Monday as the safety commission cited a lack of data.

Safety commission chief operating officer Sharmila Samarasinghe said the commission has provided Metro with a way to return many more trains to service that involves the slow introduction of cars onto the Blue, Orange and Silver lines, but Metro hasn’t accepted the plan. She also said Metro has yet to operate its full allotment of 20 trains per day, a limit Clarke said Metro can’t reach because of the time involved in measuring wheels during short inspection intervals.

Samarasinghe said the safety commission was “disappointed” that Metro executives and board members are giving the public “incorrect statements.”

“We need clarity and guidance here,” Clarke responded. “They have legal authority to issue us an order. Either issue a direct order and tell us what to do, or be consistent with a data-driven plan.”