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Metro plans summer closures as regulators question safety choices

Washington Metrorail Safety Commission members said Metro should have fired or removed an operator for lying during an investigation

Commuters use the escalator at the Ballston station in Arlington, one of the stations that will be affected by Metro's upcoming summer construction projects. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Members of Metro’s regulatory agency expressed concern Tuesday about inconsistencies in how the transit agency follows its own safety policies after it kept a train operator on the job who lied to investigators about why he ignored warnings and nearly hit track workers.

Transit officials did not respond to questions about the case as tensions resurfaced between the two agencies. The safety commission’s concerns came on the same day that Metro announced a slate of summer safety-related construction projects to replace track and upgrade stations, but that also will inconvenience riders with station shutdowns and service delays.

The latest comments came during a monthly meeting of the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, where commissioners underlined escalating strain between the agency and Metro. Days earlier, the issue bubbled into public view after the panel’s most recent safety investigation prompted Metro to say the commission was using the investigation to needlessly hinder it from safely fulfilling the region’s transit needs.

Congress created the safety commission five years ago to oversee Metrorail safety in the wake of recurring safety violations, frequent breakdowns and the death of a passenger who died of smoke inhalation on a stalled train in 2015.

Commission member Michael J. Rush, vice president of safety and operations for the Association of American Railroads, said Metro’s decision to allow a reckless operator to continue driving trains goes against a commitment to safety.

“This is completely contrary to establishing a good safety culture at [Metro],” Rush said.

The safety commission earlier this month said it caught Metro using outdated safety standards to train track workers. It also noted a discrepancy between the suspended 7000-series rail cars that Metro’s engineers believe are safe and those that Metro’s technicians were preparing for passenger service.

The series makes up nearly 60 percent of Metro’s fleet and remains under federal investigation for a wheel defect that can lead to derailments. The safety commission had suspended all 748 cars in the series, but in recent months has allowed Metro to restore several cars to service if they receive wheel inspections every four days.

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

Metro was preparing to increase inspection intervals to seven days under a plan that would lead to all cars being reinstated by summer. But when the safety commission put the plan on hold while investigators looked into rail operator training and possible internal disagreements over which rail cars to return, Metro accused the commission of breaking its agreement and said the relationship was untenable. It was the second time Metro had publicly aired grievances over the commission’s rulings in two months.

The commission on Friday allowed Metro to move forward with less-frequent wheel inspections. But on Tuesday, it was clear that safety commissioners had qualms about Metro’s safety commitment.

Safety commission staff members presented commissioners with reports of several incidents over the past few months, including a July 16 incident in which a track inspection crew on the Red Line had to rush from the path of a speeding train. Surveillance footage showed the train operator had been flagged to slow at the preceding station and by rail operations control. When asked why the operator didn’t slow, he told investigators he was distracted by a passenger who raised him on the emergency intercom about a weapon onboard.

Vehicle data showed the intercom was never activated. Metro’s investigative report, according to the safety commission, recommended “low” level punishment and indicated the transit agency docked his personnel record.

“Is this appropriate for putting roadway workers at risk and then lying about it?” asked Commissioner Robert Lauby, a former chief safety officer for the Federal Railroad Administration.

Commission investigator Adam Quigley said the punishment didn’t match a similar incident in which Metro disqualified an operator and supervisor from rail operations.

“If we were to see repeat occurrences like this, boy, that would call into question the approach [Metro] is taking with its employees,” Rush said.

In another case, Dave Statter, an independent journalist, had discovered radio dispatch recordings in July in which a rail controller had asked a train operator carrying passengers to check for a track fire after receiving reports of smoke. Operators are not allowed to do track inspections while carrying passengers, and Metro publicly said the operator was checking for a bobbing circuit that didn’t pose a safety concern.

Agency probes Metro over handling of weekend track-fire incident

The commission’s investigation found that the controller had ordered a fire inspection, sending the operator and full train toward possible danger. The fire ended up shutting down sections of the Red Line for part of three days.

“Why would an operator who knows he’s got passengers onboard, when he’s asked to do a track inspection, why wouldn’t he say ‘no, I can’t do a track inspection,’” Lauby asked.

“That’s a good question,” Quigley responded. “I don’t have an answer to that.”

Commission officials said Metro has retrained 51 of 54 train operators who did not have their required eight hours of training with an instructor. Metro had contested the violation, saying it changed its training requirements by combining passenger service training with rail yard maneuvering because of a shortage of rail cars. The agency said it didn’t put the changes into formal writing or inform the safety commission of the change.

On Tuesday, Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said the retraining efforts were “in accordance with the [safety commission] directive,” adding, “we continue to work with the [safety commission] as our safety partner as we improve service for our customers and the region.”

Metro on Tuesday also unveiled summer construction projects to upgrade Metrorail that will bring delays and weeks-long station shutdowns.

The transit agency said it plans to replace rail, install fiber-optic cables and upgrade stations this summer across the system. Free shuttle bus service will be provided when stations are closed to bridge passengers to open stations nearby, Metro said.

“We are working strategically to target maintenance locations and minimize the impacts on customers as we conduct this critical work to upgrade systems, improve reliability, and modernize station facilities,” Andy Off, Metro’s executive vice president of infrastructure, said in a statement.

The plans include completing a station roofing project on the Orange Line that involves coordination with power company workers; replacing 30 miles of steel rail; installing fiber optic cable to improve communications and other technological needs; modernizing customer information displays on train platforms at downtown transfer stations; and an escalator replacement and elevator rehabilitation project at the Dupont Circle station’s north entrance.

The five projects will lead to four stages of disruptions affecting rail service that will start May 12 and end Sept. 4, Metro said. The phases correspond to a single section of the system that will be affected, limiting disruptions to one area at any given time.

As part of the work, several stations at the end of the northern end of the Green Line will close from July 22 to Sept. 4, while multiple Orange Line stations in Maryland and Virginia will close for days.

Details on the scheduled shutdowns and construction delays are available at wmata.com.

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