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Relationship between Metro, regulator under scrutiny as tensions grow

Lawmakers say they want to hear from both Metro and the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission about the ongoing friction

Passengers board a 7000-series train at the Rockville Metro station. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

A new spat between Metro and its regulator has put their relationship under scrutiny and stirred discussion about the effectiveness of an oversight arrangement Congress created six years ago to make Metrorail safer.

The dispute between Metro and the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission is the second to become public in three months, this time pushing Metro board members to call for outside mediation, as well as changes in the structure of a relationship they say had grown untenable.

The flare-up highlights the balance in rail transit between service levels and safety, pitting a transit agency facing pandemic-era economic woes against a commission tasked with guaranteeing safety after years of Metrorail violations and the 2015 smoke-inhalation death of a passenger. It threatens Metro’s short-term plans for restoring more of its suspended rail cars in a bid to improve train frequency, attract more riders and boost its sagging finances.

“The spirit by which the relationship exists at this point has really devolved into what feels like a lot of gotcha-type of behavior and not constructive toward understanding that Metro has a job to do to move the region, as well as being safe,” Metro board member and Loudoun County Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) said in a news conference Monday that Metro convened to protest the safety commission’s recent actions.

The commission and Metro have come to loggerheads over the transit agency’s desire to increase service by using more of its suspended 7000-series rail cars. The commission stopped Metro from acting on the plan while it investigates possible deficiencies in train operator and track worker training protocols, some of which Metro has acknowledged.

Regulator pauses Metro’s plans to reduce inspections on 7000 trains

“We could have been better in documentation, but documentation should not be conflated that everything we do has to actually then be approved by the [safety commission],” Metro General Manager Randy Clarke said.

Metro on Monday appealed to elected leaders to intervene, but lawmakers remained largely unmoved. Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said he will not allow Metro to return to an era where lax oversight coincided with fatal accidents, frequent track fires and other emergencies.

“We all witnessed the consequences of Metro being allowed to effectively police itself when it comes to safety,” said Connolly, who has held annual Metro oversight hearings as chair of the House Oversight subcommittee on government operations. “We will not allow that to happen again.”

Late last week, the safety commission told Metro that it was investigating multiple issues after it found Metro was training track workers using outdated safety standards. The commission also said it learned several new train operators had not completed eight hours of rail yard training with an instructor, as required. Investigators also were looking into whether Metro mechanics were returning trains to service that Metro engineers might have flagged, which Metro officials denied and said was being mischaracterized.

The commission asked Metro for more information on the training and set a Wednesday deadline.

Metro officials said the transit agency combined rail yard training with passenger service training because of a train shortage. Metro acknowledged not informing the commission of the change or documenting it, saying its newest operators are fully trained.

The agency filed an appeal to the safety commission to explain why it combined the training. Hours after Metro told the public to expect rail delays this week while it pulled some operators for additional training, the safety commission’s chief executive, David L. Mayer, extended Metro’s deadline by a week, heading off the need to curtail service.

Metro officials say their larger complaint is that the commission is blocking the transit agency from taking a step toward restoring pre-pandemic service levels. Under a plan forged in October, Metro was allowed to slowly reincorporate its 7000-series rail cars if they passed wheel inspections every four days. If no problems arose, Metro would be able to scale back the time-consuming inspections to every seven days, freeing up more cars for passenger service.

The safety commission, however, has told Metro it cannot move forward. Metro leaders, who hope to reduce train waits to five minutes on some lines this summer, said the commission overstepped its authority. One board member called the arrangement with the commission “broken.”

Metro says relationship with regulator is untenable, needs ‘mediation’

Metro board members said they understand the panel’s mission to detect safety problems, adding that the commission shouldn’t have the power to hinder Metro’s service. They said the safety commission’s power needs to be checked, raising concerns that the only recrimination they have to fight orders is to file an appeal to the commission.

Safety commission spokesman Max Smith said the appeals process has been shown to work, creating multiple compromises with Metro’s support. The safety commission does not interfere with how Metro operates its system, Smith said, adding that the commission has no choice but to limit or stop service while it investigates a potential problem.

Smith said decisions the commission makes are not arbitrary, as Metro has alleged, but are directly related to possible violations the commission uncovers.

“You have these facts. You have these safety requirements, and [the fact] you’re not meeting those safety requirements is not an opinion,” Smith said. “It’s not something to be argued over.”

Elected leaders said they want to hear from both agencies to understand why they can’t get along.

Maryland House Majority Leader Marc A. Korman (D-Montgomery) said state officials have invited leaders of both organizations to a hearing “and we hope to use that venue to flesh this out a bit.”

“And if [Metro] wants specific changes, they should step forward and suggest them in detail and we can begin to hash it out,” Korman wrote in an email. “Everyone seems to agree that safety is the goal and it is just a question of how to get there.”

D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) has also asked both agencies to attend a Feb. 2 Transportation Committee hearing to discuss the friction.

A look back: Metro blames regulator for possible Silver Line delay, crowding as tension grows

Members of Congress who helped to create the commission, meanwhile, made clear their priority is passenger safety. Many put the onus on Metro to make the relationship work.

Connolly said the commission’s oversight and communications with Metro have not been perfect, but Metro “should not get to be problematic to a point of making mediation necessary.” He added: “Finger-pointing won’t protect riders. [Metro] and the [safety commission] must come together and work out solutions that balance safety and reliability.”

Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine, both Virginia Democrats, issued a joint statement Tuesday underlining the importance of the safety commission’s role.

“Our top priority has always been ensuring the safety of Metro’s riders, and oversight is a necessary part in doing so,” they said. “[Metro] and [the safety commission] need to be working together to serve riders’ best interests.”

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said Metro has been shown to require “rigorous oversight” over the years.

“It is far past time for Metro to establish a culture of safety, and a constructive relationship with [the safety commission] is a prerequisite for success in this regard,” he said in a statement.

Added Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.): “The bottom line is they need to put aside their differences and work together to meet these standards.”