The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Friction between Metro and regulator eases as train wait times drop

The improved rapport allowed the D.C. Council and Metro officials to focus on a range of other topics

(Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
5 min

Tensions between Metro and the agency that regulates rail safety are easing, letting the transit agency shift its focus to a slate of service and safety improvements, such as shorter wait times, fare-free D.C. bus service and increased surveillance that includes police body cameras, Metro’s top leader said Friday during a D.C. Council hearing.

A dispute last month between Metro and the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission threatened to delay plans to restore more frequent rail service after a train shortage saddled riders with up to 20-minute waits for much of last year. The safety commission ultimately allowed Metro to press forward, setting the transit agency on a path to significantly lower wait times while thawing the rocky relationship between the agencies.

“I don’t think we’re at a point where we need facilitation,” safety commission chief executive David L. Mayer said during a Metro oversight hearing by the D.C. Council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment. “Is there room for improvement? Could better communications be done? Absolutely, and we’re taking a look at that internally and in discussions with Metro.”

Committee Chairman Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) had planned to devote much of the hearing toward mending the relationship. Instead, the improved rapport allowed the council to focus on a range of other topics, including the use of body cameras by Metro transit police officers in the coming months, the Metrobus system’s slow conversion to an electric fleet and the start of free bus service in D.C. this summer.

Metro outlines plan to boost service levels beginning in February

Friction between Metro and the commission recently had spiked to one of its highest levels since Congress created the commission six years ago. A dispute spilled into public view late last year, when transit leaders publicly called out the commission for limiting the number of 7000-series trains available amid overcrowding while Metro also sought more rail cars to operate the Silver Line extension.

The commission had controlled the release of 7000-series cars, which make up 60 percent of Metro’s fleet, since banning them in October 2021 when a federal derailment investigation uncovered wheel movements on several cars. After Metro proposed screening the wheels regularly, the commission began releasing the cars in phases last summer. Metro criticized their slow release, prompting transit officials to accuse the commission of withholding cars arbitrarily.

Paul C. Smedberg, the Metro board chairman, last month said its relationship with the safety commission was “untenable.” In response, the commission said its limits were in place to gather more data and ensure the wheel defect didn’t resurface.

The disputes drew the attention of members of Congress, resulting in a meeting between the two agencies that also involved Virginia Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine, both Democrats. A flare-up last month resulted in the commission granting Metro the leeway it wanted to increase the use of 7000-series trains.

Still, tension between the agencies remained evident as recently as a few weeks ago, when a safety commissioner questioned Metro’s commitment to safety, drawing a rebuke from Metro General Manager Randy Clarke.

As tensions relaxed Friday, both Clarke and Mayer said their agencies were on the same page. The two leaders met privately this week, and while Mayer said they didn’t agree on everything, they decided to schedule subsequent meetings that would involve other senior leaders.

“This will be an opportunity to sit down and make sure we all actually know each other and what makes each other tick, and increase collaboration and trust between us,” Mayer said.

Metro plans summer closures as regulators question safety choices

Asked what might further boost relations between the agencies, Clarke said he hoped smaller issues found by the safety commission could be dealt with during conversations rather than through more formal means, such as letters or at public meetings.

He said he hoped the commission could better understand that while Metro supports strong safety oversight, it must balance that with the region’s service needs — something he said he hoped the commission considered when prescribing solutions or corrections for safety issues. Clarke said Metro is working to correct serious issues the commission has found, including documenting policy changes.

“I want to own that,” he said. “As an agency, we have to get better.”

With the safety commission’s permission, Metro is screening the wheels of 7000-series cars weekly, down from more frequent intervals. Fewer time-consuming inspections have allowed Metro to put more trains back into service for the first time in more than a year, resulting in arrivals on the Blue and Orange lines this month at every 12 minutes instead of every 15 minutes.

Relationship between Metro, regulator under scrutiny as tensions grow

Metro’s next frequency increase will come Tuesday, when Red Line trains are scheduled to arrive every eight minutes during rush hour and every 10 minutes at other times on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Service improvements also are coming to Metrobus. This summer, all rides in the District will become free after the D.C. Council agreed to pay for the bus service to increase transit usage and help residents struggling financially.

Clarke said Metro has begun meeting with D.C. leaders, including Lucinda M. Babers, the deputy mayor for operations and infrastructure who is also a Metro board member, to work out funding and other details for the free-bus conversion.

D.C. Council votes to make all Metrobus rides in the District free

Council members and community activists who attended the hearing asked Metro leaders how transit police will release body-camera footage when officers begin to wear cameras for the first time this summer. Clarke said he didn’t have details on the transit police video retention and release policy, but said it was modeled after D.C. police policy.

“The language is incredibly similar,” he said.

“I hope so,” Allen responded.

The council has spent years refining its policy to balance transparency and protect against police abuse while also ensuring that criminal investigations aren’t compromised.

Allen asked Metro to provide more specifics in the coming days for council members to review.