A long-running battle between Metro and the agency Congress authorized to regulate Metrorail safety spilled into public view again Monday, when transit leaders called for mediation over a dispute they say threatens Metro’s ability to provide better rail service.
Metro said the safety commission’s decisions would, in effect, prohibit the transit agency from restoring pre-pandemic waits of about five minutes by this summer after a wheel safety issue sidelined much of its fleet. Safety commission officials, meanwhile, say Metro is continuing to ignore oversight and safety protocols.
The escalating feud over a holiday weekend followed a period in which Metro has sought a return to normalcy, hoping to shake off a rail car suspension and a pandemic that harmed its finances. Metro has eyed the coming months for a rebound, but the dispute with its regulator ushered in more uncertainty for the transit agency as it hopes to lure back customers.
Metro board member and Maryland Transportation Secretary James F. Ports said Metro leaders are not questioning the safety commission’s role in providing oversight, but how the agency is carrying out that task.
“While we respect [the commission’s] role with regard to safety, it seems that they may be blurring the line a little bit between safety oversight and stepping in and practically trying to run the operations of the organization,” Ports said. “And so I think, as the chairman [Paul C. Smedberg] just said, maybe there has to be some kind of arbitration-mediation-type organization that we can go to when we have these disagreements.”
The safety commission said it discovered at least three concerns or violations it brought to Metro’s attention late last week, including a shift in training that reduced the amount of time train operators are practicing maneuvering through rail yards. The commission also cited the continued use of out-of-date safety standards for track-worker training and what it said was a potentially significant gap between how Metro mechanics are returning 7000-series cars to service — and what Metro engineers think is safe.
Safety commission spokesman Max Smith said the commission is reviewing Metro’s appeals, but said any actions are only intended to ensure Metrorail safety.
Leaders at Metro and the safety commission have disparate views of the friction between the agencies. At Metro, transit officials say they are too often penalized for small oversights that did not result in harm or for necessary tweaks to procedures that the transit system developed in the first place.
The safety commission, Metro officials say, often learns about training or safety lapses after Metro reports them, and in return, forces Metro to make corrections through actions that transit leaders say are unfairly arduous, capricious or unnecessary.
However, Smith said getting Metro — an agency with a record of ignoring federal and regulatory safety orders — to adhere consistently to its own safety rules is how accidents are prevented.
“The reason that Metrorail is safe is because of a constellation of safety steps and policies that are in place, including those that have been added to and developed over time to address, unfortunately, times where things haven’t worked out properly in addition to those things that have been proactively addressed to prevent things from happening,” Smith said. “Any time you’re not following any one of those safety processes and then another one of those safety processes, you chip away at the overall safety of the system.”
Metro’s 7000-series cars, which make up 60 percent of the rail system, were suspended in October 2021 after a federal derailment investigation found that several cars in the series had a defect that caused unsafe wheel movements. Their absence created a nearly year-long train shortage that brought extended wait times for riders.
The safety commission, an independent agency Congress created in 2017 to oversee Metrorail after high-profile safety violations — including the 2015 death of a passenger on a stalled, smoke-filled train — has allowed Metro to slowly phase in the cars with regular wheel screenings and data reviews under a plan both agencies agreed to in late October.
That plan called for all 748 cars to be returned, alongside a decrease in the frequency of wheel screenings, as long as no wheel movements resurfaced. Metro petitioned last week to shift to weekly wheel inspections, instead of wheel screenings every four days.
But the latest issues raised by the safety commission prompted the regulatory agency to tell Metro it couldn’t scale back inspections. Wheel inspections are time-consuming, and lowering their interval would have allowed Metro to get more trains into service each day, potentially reducing waits to about five minutes on some lines by the summer.
Metro officials said Monday that time frame is imperiled by the safety commission’s directives. The agency had planned to pull more than 50 operators from service for training this week to resolve the commission’s concerns, but safety commission Chief Executive David L. Mayer granted Metro an extension Monday to comply with the commission’s requests for additional information. Before the extension, Metro had said hours earlier it planned a reduction of service this week, stemming from a rail operator shortage.
Metro General Manager Randy Clarke said operators being pulled out of service received the same number of hours of training as other operators. Metro allowed trainers to curtail some rail yard training because the agency is short on trains, transit officials said Monday. There are no industry standards for operator training, Metro officials say, adding that the 10 weeks Metro provides to trainees is 60 percent longer than at its peer agencies.
On Monday, Metro board members, including Ports, D.C. deputy mayor of operations Lucinda M. Babers and Loudoun County Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) — as well as Smedberg — were among those who said the safety commission should be working more cooperatively to make Metro safe.
“Safety is an absolute core value of Metro; however, we are exasperated with directives that are not based on risk analysis or facts,” Smedberg said.
Metro did acknowledge several missteps with the commission, including failing to notify the regulatory agency that it was changing training and missing a deadline to familiarize train operators with the system.
Clarke said the change in how operators were trained was discussed within the agency.
“While Metro could have done a better job in documenting that adjustment, it was not done in a vacuum,” Clarke said. “It was done by seasoned professionals with lots of experience and did not compromise safety. … Returning them to spend more time operating out-of-service trains does nothing to improve safety.”
Smith, however, said the amount of training operators received also is under investigation. Metro’s own records showed a train operator who was supposed to have eight hours of operation with a training instructor had just nine minutes, he said.
The ongoing issues between the two agencies have attracted attention from elected officials. In October, Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine, both Virginia Democrats, helped mediate a resolution that eventually allowed Metro to operate more 7000-series trains and open the 11.5-mile Silver Line extension days before Thanksgiving.
“Both entities need to stop fighting and figure out how to work cooperatively and productively as Congress intended to ensure both safety and reliability for Metro’s riders,” Warner said in a statement Monday.
On Monday, D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) said he plans to hear from Metro and the safety commission at a Committee on Transportation and the Environment hearing Feb. 2. Allen, who chairs the committee, said their relationship will be a focus of the hearing. The District, Maryland and Northern Virginia jurisdictions heavily subsidize Metro.
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