Reg­u­la­tors find slew of Metro flaws

SAFETY PRO­GRAM CALLED ‘IN­AD­E­QUATE’ Rail con­trol cen­ter lacks enough train­ing, work­ers

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY LORI ARATANI

Metro’s cen­tral train con­trol cen­ter — tasked with en­sur­ing the safety of thou­sands of pas­sen­gers mov­ing through the na­tion’s sec­ond-busiest rail sys­tem — is chron­i­cally un­der­staffed, chaotic and filled with dis­trac­tions, ac­cord­ing to a fed­eral re­port re­leased Wed­nes­day.

Staff mem­bers lack ad­e­quate train­ing and have no for­mal check­lists to help guide them in do­ing their jobs. Em­ploy­ees fre­quently ig­nore rules — sev­eral were seen us­ing cell­phones while work­ing. And in other in­stances, be­cause of mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion trains were di­rected into ar­eas that should have been off-lim­its.

These find­ings and other ob­ser­va­tions are part of an un­prece­dented fed­eral safety in­spec­tion of oper­a­tions at the Washington Metropoli­tan Area Transit Au­thor­ity. Of­fi­cials with the Fed­eral Transit Ad­min­is­tra­tion ini­ti­ated the re­view af­ter a fa­tal Jan. 12 smoke in­ci­dent in which the melt­down of track-based elec­tri­cal com­po­nents filled a Yel­low Line tun­nel with smoke just south of the L’En­fant Plaza sta­tion. One woman died, and more than 80 riders were sick­ened. Congress gave the FTA new au­thor­ity to con­duct such in­spec­tions in 2012.

The 116-page Safety Man­age­ment In­spec­tion re­port paints a trou­bling pic­ture of WMATA, say­ing it has failed to fol­low through on ef­forts to im­prove safety since the 2009 Red Line crash that killed nine peo­ple.

“These are se­ri­ous find­ings that strongly in­di­cate that, de­spite gains made since the Fort Tot­ten ac­ci­dent, WMATA’s safety pro­gram is in­ad­e­quate,” said U.S. Sec­re­tary of Trans­porta­tion An­thony Foxx.

Act­ing FTA Ad­min­is­tra­tor Therese W. McMil­lan said the re­port is an “im­por­tant wake-up call” for WMATA.

“Since Fort Tot­ten, Metro has made im­por­tant progress,” she said, adding that Metro has a safety foun­da­tion in place that it didn’t have be­fore the 2009 Red

Line crash. “What they lack is ef­fec­tive ex­e­cu­tion.”

Metro of­fi­cials de­clined to dis­cuss the re­port, is­su­ing only a pre­pared state­ment. A spokes­woman said Wed­nes­day that Jack Re­qua, the in­terim gen­eral man­ager, was not avail­able for in­ter­views Wed­nes­day.

“We welcome this re­port as a road map for con­tin­u­ous safety im­prove­ments at Metro, and we es­pe­cially ap­pre­ci­ate the recog­ni­tion of the many ac­tions that we have taken to date to pro­vide a foun­da­tion for our fu­ture work,” Re­qua said in the state­ment.

“We will strengthen our oper­a­tions, cus­tomer ser­vice and safety cul­ture through train­ing, staffing and en­sur­ing com­pli­ance of safety poli­cies and pro­ce­dures. And with the un­der­stand­ing of our cus­tomers, we will ad­dress the need for a bet­ter bal­ance be­tween ser­vice and track out­ages to up­grade the sys­tem. We re­main com­mit­ted to cre­at­ing an even safer sys­tem.”

De­spite her agency’s find­ings, McMil­lan sought to re­as­sure Metro cus­tomers.

“WMATA is not un­safe,” she said. “To­day’s find­ings should not be in­ter­preted as a rea­son for WMATA’s rail and bus pas­sen­gers to seek other means of trans­porta­tion. How­ever, WMATA must do bet­ter to im­prove its safety per­for­mance.”

As part of their re­view, FTA of­fi­cials in­ter­viewed more than 300 peo­ple, from the au­thor­ity’s top ex­ec­u­tives to front­line staff. Of­fi­cials re­viewed safety over­sight sys­tems for bus and rail oper­a­tions.

They iden­ti­fied is­sues re­lated to Metro’s bus sys­tem, but the ma­jor­ity of their con­cerns were with Metro’s rail oper­a­tions — in par­tic­u­lar, the cen­tral train con­trol cen­ter known as the Rail Oper­a­tions Con­trol Cen­ter (ROCC).

The ROCC is akin to the sys­tem for man­ag­ing the na­tion’s air traf­fic, but WMATA con­trollers are re­spon­si­ble for man­ag­ing the move­ment of more than 100 trains.

The fed­eral re­view found short­com­ings in vir­tu­ally all as­pects of the cen­ter’s oper­a­tions, in­clud­ing train­ing, man­age­ment and doc­u­men­ta­tion. The find­ings are sig­nif­i­cant, of­fi­cials note, be­cause prob­lems in the ROCC rip­ple through all parts of the rail sys­tem.

“These is­sues sig­nif­i­cantly im­pact the abil­ity of the Metro­rail sys­tem to sched­ule and con­duct main­te­nance work [and] man­age ab­nor­mal and emer­gency events,” the re­port said.

Of­fi­cials found that Metro’s 34 train con­trollers fill what is “ar­guably the most chal­leng­ing job at WMATA, pro­vid­ing 24 hour, seven-day-a-week cov­er­age,” but that num­ber is 20 short of the 54 con­trollers au­tho­rized by the transit au­thor­ity. As a re­sult, the staff might work six or seven 12-hour days per week, and even then, su­per­vi­sors some­times strug­gle to fill all shifts.

Fur­ther com­pli­cat­ing their work, Metro con­trollers are asked to do tasks be­yond what is re­quired of those who work in sim­i­lar jobs in other transit sys­tems. Of­fi­cials also iden­ti­fied prob­lems with the com­puter soft­ware sys­tem used in the ROCC, echo­ing a Washington Post re­port that found the agency’s com­puter soft­ware is out­moded and gen­er­ates so many need­less alarms that warn­ings about smoke and other prob­lems some­times go un­heeded by con­trollers.

Ef­forts to re­vamp the sys­tem, how­ever, have stalled.

Even when con­trollers are on the job, the in­spec­tion found, it’s not clear that they are al­ways fo­cused on man­ag­ing the trains. Of­fi­cials noted that they of­ten saw con­trollers us­ing their cell­phones while on duty, a vi­o­la­tion of pol­icy.

The re­port also cites a high level of noise and dis­trac­tion in the ROCC that con­trib­utes to er­rors, in­clud­ing in­stances in which trains were routed into ac­tive work zones and train op­er­a­tors vi­o­lated red sig­nals af­ter mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion from con­trollers.

Among other find­ings in the re­port, of­fi­cials said that Metro is hob­bled by out­dated com­puter sys­tems that hin­der its abil­ity to keep ac­cu­rate records. The transit au­thor­ity also strug­gles to bal­ance the needs of its cus­tomers with the need to main­tain the sys­tem and make crit­i­cal safety re­pairs. The re­port noted that WMATA has pulled back on the amount of time crews can ac­cess the sys­tem so it can “ex­pand ser­vice and re­duce cus­tomer in­con­ve­nience,” but fed­eral of­fi­cials said that may be ham­per­ing Metro’s abil­ity to make re­pairs.

Of­fi­cials found that WMATA’s main­te­nance de­part­ments must con­stantly resched­ule work be­cause they can’t get the nec­es­sary ac­cess to make needed re­pairs. As a re­sult, there is a grow­ing back­log of work dat­ing back as far as 2012.

The FTA in­spec­tion re­port is the re­sult of just one of a se­ries of on­go­ing re­views of WMATA’s oper­a­tions since the fa­tal in­ci­dent in Jan­uary and rev­e­la­tions that the au­thor­ity mis­han­dled mil­lions in fed­eral grant money.

Next week, the Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board is sched­uled to hold two days of hear­ings on the Jan. 12 in­ci­dent. The Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice also is re­view­ing Metro oper­a­tions, and a group of transit ex­perts — as­sem­bled by the Amer­i­can Public Trans­porta­tion As­so­ci­a­tion — is ex­am­in­ing the ROCC.

McMil­lan said that although the public may be trou­bled by the FTA’s find­ings, cut­ting fund­ing is not the an­swer.

“You can­not starve a transit agency into safety com­pli­ance or a state of good re­pair,” she said. “It is im­por­tant that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment be a part­ner.”

Im­ple­ment­ing FTA’s di­rec­tives will “not be easy, cheap, fast or free,” said Sen. Ti­mothy M. Kaine (D-Va.). “The worst thing would be to starve Metro.”

Even so, the re­gion’s con­gres­sional del­e­ga­tion said that although they sup­port fully fund­ing Metro, those dol­lars will come with strings.

As part of the re­port, FTA of­fi­cials is­sued 78 cor­rec­tive ac­tions needed for the Metro­rail sys­tem and 13 cor­rec­tive ac­tions for the Metrobus sys­tem. Metro has 30 days to re­spond. Within 60 days, Metro of­fi­cials must sub­mit a plan to the FTA for ad­dress­ing those cor­rec­tive ac­tions.

Said Vir­ginia Sen. Mark R. Warner (D): “Metro should ex­pect con­tin­ued ro­bust con­gres­sional over­sight of its safety and oper­a­tions.”

AN­DREW HARNIK/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Emer­gency re­spon­ders work with aMetro train driver, right, on the plat­form of the Foggy Bot­tom sta­tion in­May af­ter a re­port that an in­su­la­tor on the third rail had been dam­aged. The in­ci­dent shut down ser­vice be­tween Foggy Bot­tom and Ross­lyn.

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