- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Most car drivers know they should stop at all red lights, but for some Metro train operators, the stop signal has been more of a suggestion than a command.

Two red-light violations by subway train operators last month have drawn attention to Metro safety, even as the Federal Transit Administration is investigating more than 50 “stop signal overrun incidents” since 2012.

“Stop signal overruns are a pervasive and serious problem at [Metro]” said an FTA spokesman, adding that the federal agency’s investigation will find whether Metro has taken “appropriate measures” to prevent violations.

No serious accidents attributable to red light running have been reported, but the failure of train operators to stop at red lights poses grave dangers for subway riders and workers.

On July 5, a train operator ran a red light at the Glenmont station, nearly striking two workers on the track trying to stop him and almost colliding head-on with another train.

Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld noted that operators usually are suspended for a first red signal violation but said that, given the “severity of the safety breach,” this train operator was fired.

“Some of you may think this action is harsh,” Mr. Wiedefeld wrote in an email to staff. “I want you to know that I took this step because I am deeply concerned by the disregard this operator demonstrated for the wellbeing of his co-workers — namely the track walkers on the ground — as well as for his passengers, and those passengers and employees on other trains.”

Another train operator was fired for running a red light while leaving Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport station on July 27.

The two incidents of red light running last month are among at least 10 Metro has reported to the Federal Transit Administration this calendar year. On average, Metro has reported about 14 such violations annually since 2012.

Sixty-six incidents have been reported since 2012. The FTA is investigating 50 of those and will release a report by summer’s end.

“I know it happened more often than it should,” said a former train control technician who asked to remain anonymous for fear his comments would place a “target on his back.”

A recent report by the Metro Safety Committee identified the issue of operators running red lights as a violation of “one of Metro’s cardinal rules,” posing a potential threat of “serious injury and property damage.”

The rule states in part: “Rail vehicles shall not be operated past or closer than a point 10 feet in approach of an interlocking signal or lamp displaying a red aspect, a red flag, or a dark interlocking signal except at a bump post or entering a pocket track, or unless authorized by [the Rail Operations Control Center] or the interlocking operator and the move is consistent with customer safety.”

Human error

Automatic train operations could reduce red light running, but Metro has not relied on automation since the 2009 Fort Totten crash in which nine people were killed. A failure in an automated sensor system allowed a train to crash into the rear of another stopped at the station.

Metro has tried to prevent red signal overruns by offering “retraining, notices to operators, safety blitzes [and] installing new signs to identify upcoming signals.” But the troubled transit agency has found no statistical decrease in overruns since these measures were implemented.

According to Metro and FTA reports, the problem may lie with the Rail Operations Control Center, where poorly trained operators and hostile work conditions may play a role in the transit system’s flawed communication system.

Metro officials have declined to discuss the control center’s role in recent red light signal violations, but assessments released by the FTA in June cited more than 130 action items pertaining to Metro’s “nerve center.”

The investigation found the control center to be “significantly understaffed,” workers poorly trained and lacking recertification, an absence of formal procedure, faulty communication and dangerous practices such as personal cellphone use.

According to the former train controller, the interlocking operators — who control movements in the train yard — may be giving train drivers a false sense of security in running red lights.

“Part of the problem is that in the train yards, it is common for the interlocking operator to give [drivers] permission to pass red signals,” said the former technician, who retired from Metro after almost 30 years.

Allowing train operators to pass red signals lets the interlocking controllers better direct traffic in the yards, but it also means “that operators might become used to the idea that passing red signals is OK,” he said.

Conditions are controlled in the yard, where trains have no passengers and travel at slow speeds. Interlocking operators who instruct train drivers to pass red signals can see that the track ahead is clear.

Outside the yard, conditions are dramatically different. Trains carrying passengers move at much higher speeds, and in many areas it is impossible to see if anyone or anything is on the track ahead — until it’s too late.

That is where the Rail Operations Control Center comes in to ensure the safe and timely movements of trains and their passengers. But the center’s training and effectiveness have come under scrutiny and attack.

‘On the same team’

Kenneth Colvin began working in the Rail Operations Control Center in 2014, thinking the job would be easier than his last. The former air traffic controller spent the previous six years directing aircraft at Alabama’s Cairns Army Airfield, one of the busiest in the country.

Instead, Mr. Colvin describes his 13 months of work in Metro’s control room as “overwhelming” and “hostile.”

Training for the control center is supposed to consist of 20 weeks of rigorous instruction with frequent testing, but Mr. Colvin said he was paid to do essentially nothing during his training. He said he worked harder for fast-food and other restaurant jobs.

The simulator — intended to give trainees a glimpse of what the control center is like — was broken, and training materials, published by a third-party vendor, were outdated and riddled with errors.

The training was meant to prepare workers for the control room, where operators are expected to monitor trains’ movements and assist those manually driving trains if something goes wrong. And things often did.

Mr. Colvin said the automated alarm system would issue hundreds of warnings within a single shift, which the Federal Transit Administration considers a “huge distraction.” Mr. Colvin said employees largely ignored the alarms.

When an alarm did signal a serious issue, senior rail operators were not interested in helping newcomers handle the situation; rather, many wanted to see them fail, Mr. Colvin said.

“We were all on the same team,” he said, but it was “every man for himself” because each new employee cut into the overtime pay pool.

Chaos in the control room was the norm, as a train might freeze in place on screen while in reality it continued to move along the track, leaving conductors in the dark, Mr. Colvin said.

The FTA has identified steps needed to improve safety in the Rail Operations Control Center, but few of them have been completed. Although the hiring and training of staff is 90 percent complete, recertification of existing workers has not begun.

At Metro, “they talk a lot of big game about safety, but they only move when disaster happens,” said Mr. Colvin. “Policies don’t change unless people die.”

• Aubri Juhasz can be reached at ajuhasz@washingtontimes.com.

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