A federal review of Metro found serious safety lapses within the transit agency, including its inability to meet its own safety standards, as well as an understaffed central control center where employees tasked with overseeing system operations were undertrained and distracted.
Control center workers inappropriately used cellphones on duty, lacked formal checklists detailing how tasks should be performed, and often had trouble being understood when they communicated by radio due to the level of noise in the center, according to the Federal Transit Administration report.
“Collectively, these issues significantly impact the ability of the Metrorail system to schedule and conduct maintenance work, to manage abnormal and emergency events, and to ensure the safety of trains and personnel,” the report states.
Federal Transit Administration Acting Administrator Therese McMillan detailed the findings of the inspection of the nation’s second largest rail system Wednesday, noting that while Metro “is not unsafe,” it needs to do better.
The top-to-bottom investigation of Metro’s safety operations was undertaken after a fatal January incident in which an electrical malfunction filled a subway tunnel near the L’Enfant Plaza Metro Station with smoke, killing one woman and sickening more than 80 passengers trapped on a disabled train.
Metro officials said the transit agency welcomed the report’s findings, and would work on making appropriate changes.
“We will strengthen our operations, customer service and safety culture through training, staffing and ensuring compliance of safety policies and procedures,” Metro interim General Manager Jack Requa said in a statement. “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.”
The 116-page report makes 54 safety findings, 44 involving Metrorail and 10 for Metrobus.
“There are serious findings that strongly indicate that, despite gains made since the Fort Totten accident, WMATA’s safety program is inadequate,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, referencing the 2009 Red Line crash that killed nine people.
The FTA has given Metro a 90-day deadline to devise an action plan to address the findings.
Among the findings, the FTA notes that Metro is not allowing enough time for preventative maintenance to be performed on train tracks — a problem that could lead to more single-tracking in order to accommodate the need for repairs.
“There needs to be increased track access for maintenance crews to perform priority work,” Ms. McMillan said, noting the that amount of time crews have to access tracks has shrunk over the last four years.
Other findings include the lack of recertification of employees and “serious safety lapses” in the Rail Operations Control Center, which is staffed 24 hours a day to oversee all movement within the system.
D.C.-area federal lawmakers previously briefed on the FTA report said while it confirmed their fears about the lack of an adequate safety culture, it also offered a road map to fix the troubled transit system.
“This FTA safety inspection confirms what many of us have feared, that Metro continues to lack a top-to-bottom culture of safety,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, Virginia Democrat. “It’s time for the Metro Board to bring on new leadership to get the system back on track.”
The agency has been operating without a permanent manager since Richard Sarles stepped down in January, complicating matters as local authorities try to address financial and performance woes. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said the report confirmed her belief that the agency is “in need of a management restructuring and organizational turn-around.”
“I will continue to work with the District’s appointees to the Board of Directors and our regional partners to demand accountability,” Ms. Bowser said.
The FTA probe is just one of several ongoing investigations into Metro following the L’Enfant smoke incident.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which also is investigating the L’Enfant incident, has said the smoke was caused by “electrical arcing,” which occurs when something makes contact with the train’s high-voltage third rail.
This month, the NTSB issued recommendations that appeared to point blame for the incident on inadequately installed and weather-proofed power cable connectors within the transit system. The NTSB is expected to release documents related to its investigation ahead of public hearings scheduled next week.