Safety rules cut both ways in Metro track in­spec­tions

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - Mar­tine.pow­ers@wash­post.com

the July 2016 de­rail­ment and amid re­ports that work­ers had been fal­si­fy­ing in­spec­tion logs.

Al­though the track in­spec­tion ma­chine now spends more time on the rails, work­ers don’t use much of the data the ma­chine is ca­pa­ble of col­lect­ing.

And there’s still not enough time to do track in­spec­tion work, in part be­cause of ex­tra lo­gis­ti­cal has­sles caused by safety reg­u­la­tions that have been put in place in the past year.

In that pe­riod, Metro has be­come much more ag­gres­sive about re­duc­ing speed lim­its in ar­eas of the sys­tem where tracks have de­fects, part of an ef­fort to re­duce the risk of de­rail­ment. But when in­spec­tors stop to fill out the doc­u­ments re­quired to put a speed limit in place, it cuts into the time they have to fin­ish the in­spec­tion.

New rules in­sti­tuted to help pro­tect work­ers from be­ing struck by trains also re­sult in longer wait times for per­mis­sion to ac­cess the tracks.

The re­port demon­strates how, in the busi­ness of run­ning a sub­way sys­tem, there are rarely easy so­lu­tions or quick fixes.

The in­ter­nal re­port was not pub­li­cized by Metro but was posted to its web­site. The link to the doc­u­ment was re­moved min­utes af­ter The Wash­ing­ton Post asked Metro’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions team about the re­port.

At the board’s most re­cent meet­ing, Metro Gen­eral Man­ager Paul J. Wiede­feld was asked about the state of the track in­spec­tion depart­ment. He ac- that is­sues re­main, but he main­tained that much has im­proved since last year, when a train de­railed at the East Falls Church sta­tion, in­jur­ing at least one per­son and caus­ing an es­ti­mated $150,000 in dam­age to the train.

The de­rail­ment oc­curred be­cause a stretch of the tracks had fallen into dis­re­pair, month af­ter month, ac­cord­ing to the National Trans­porta­tion Safety Board. Dur­ing sub­se­quent in­ves­ti­ga­tions, it be­came clear that re­pairs were not per­formed in a timely man­ner and Metro’s in­spec­tion depart­ment didn’t even have an ac­cu­rate pic­ture of where prob­lems ex­isted on the tracks.

By the be­gin­ning of this year, Wiede­feld had fired 16 “track walk­ers” (rankand-file in­spec­tors) and five su­per­vi­sors. Now, he says, the depart­ment is on the right path.

“We’ve brought in some out­side help, we’ve estab­lished much dif­fer­ent pro­ce­dures that we fol­low to in­spect and re­pair the tracks, we have more time to do the work with additional hours,” Wiede­feld said last week. “I’m very com­fort­able that we’ve moved quite a long way from a year ago, both on the con­di­tions of the track and on the safety of the track.”

But the in­ter­nal review of­fered a more nu­anced pic­ture of the progress.

The qual­ity con­trol team sug­gested that Metro cut down on the time used for pre-in­spec­tion safety brief­ings so work­ers could get more time on the tracks.

In one in­stance, the re­port said, a worker was con­tacted mul­ti­ple times by the Op­er­a­tions Con­trol Cen­ter to see when he would be clear of the tracks.

“The Con­trol Cen­ter ra­dioed . . . be­fore and again dur­ing the in­ter­lock­ing in­spec­tion,” the re­port said. The re­port said the in­ter­rup­tions led “to an overly rushed in­spec­tion which pre­vented a full in­spec­tion of all the rails and fas­ten­ers.”

One qual­ity con­trol of­fi­cial noted that an in­spec­tor was or­dered to halt his in­spec­tion so other em­ploy­ees could do main­te­nance work.

“There was al­most another hour in which in­spec­tion could have been per­formed,” the re­port said. “This wastes re­sources and makes it more dif­fi­cult for the in­spec­tion su­per­vi­sor to meet Track In­spec­tions obli­ga­tions.”

That com­ports with sim­i­lar is­sues raised by the Fed­eral Tran­sit Ad­min­is­tra­knowl­edged tion in a May in­spec­tion re­port, which noted that work­ers had to wait two hours to be given per­mis­sion to step onto the tracks; by the time a dis­patcher pro­vided the go-ahead, they had only 10 min­utes to in­ves­ti­gate a prob­lem be­fore their win­dow to be on the tracks ex­pired.

The long wait times for track ac­cess ex­em­pli­fied a re­cur­ring theme in the in­ter­nal re­port: Some­times, “pri­or­i­tiz­ing safety” is a com­plex cal­cu­lus of weigh­ing com­pet­ing needs.

The qual­ity con­trol unit also cited the track in­spec­tion depart­ment’s in­suf­fi­cient staffing and the im­pact it has had on the work.

“In­spec­tors do not have the suf­fi­cient man­power to in­spect . . . fast enough” dur­ing reg­u­lar ser­vice hours, the re­port said.

But Metro spokes­woman Sherri Ly said in­suf­fi­cient staffing is largely a prob­lem of the past. There are 36 qual­i­fied in­spec­tors at Metro — six more than the 30 re­quired by the sys­tem, she said.

Metro’s qual­ity con­trol unit of­fered other sug­ges­tions for im­prove­ment in the re­port:

• The mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar in­spec­tion ma­chine should be out­fit­ted with GPS to cut out the guess­work in de­scrib­ing the ex­act lo­ca­tion of spots where de­fects are dis­cov­ered.

• Work­ers should use more of the in­for­ma­tion that can be col­lected by that ma­chine, which the qual­ity con­trol team said is un­der­uti­lized.

• The soft­ware used to log de­fects al­lows for in­for­ma­tional re­dun­dan­cies that con­fuse track main­te­nance work­ers. The soft­ware also forces in­spec­tors to log de­fects in­di­vid­u­ally, which can make it dif­fi­cult to bump up a prob­lem zone as an im­me­di­ate pri­or­ity if a slew of in­ter­re­lated de­fects in one spot re­sult in an ur­gent safety risk. Qual­ity con­trol of­fi­cials rec­om­mended that the soft­ware be changed to al­low for de­fects to be linked to one another, to “pro­vide for bet­ter track­ing.”

• Gauge rods, tools that are placed on the tracks to pre­vent rails from spread­ing apart, should be re­moved af­ter 14 days. Right now, the re­port said, it some­times takes longer.

The qual­ity con­trol unit had one more piece of ad­vice for man­age­ment: Track in­spec­tors are now al­lowed to pick the set of tracks they are re­spon­si­ble for based on se­nior­ity. In­evitably, se­nior track walk­ers se­lect the stretches of track that are short­est or eas­i­est — and of­ten, they pick the same stretch of track year af­ter year.

Maybe, qual­ity con­trol of­fi­cers said, it would be a good idea to force in­spec­tors to ro­tate tracks each year, for one sim­ple rea­son: “It is im­por­tant to know that some­one else will be in­spect­ing the track af­ter you,” the re­port said.

KATHER­INE FREY/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Metro em­ploy­ees work on the Or­ange Line near East Falls Church sta­tion in Novem­ber. A re­cent re­port on the agency’s track in­spec­tion depart­ment re­vealed per­ni­cious in­ef­fi­cien­cies caused by safety mea­sures.

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