Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld on Tuesday downplayed his agency’s decision not to issue a public alert last month about a rape on a moving train, as he tried to assure lawmakers of the beleaguered transit agency’s safety during a House Transportation subcommittee hearing.
Mr. Wiedefeld told the lawmakers that the overall transit system is safe. He said a violent crime is just as likely to happen outside of Metro as it is inside the system.
“But that means nothing to the person who’s the victim, and it doesn’t mean much for perception,” he conceded to the House transit subcommittee members.
Metro increasingly has come under scrutiny for a series of electrical arcing, smoke and fire incidents that have caused major delays and placed passengers in precarious situations on the subway lines: An arcing insulator on the Red Line created 45-minute delays for morning commuters just hours before Mr. Wiedefeld testified Tuesday. Federal regulators have threatened the transit agency with defunding and closures for its safety lapses.
However, a different set of safety concerns has arisen amid a spate of violence on the subway system.
Authorities said they have charged a man from Northeast Washington with assaulting and raping a 39-year-old woman on a Red Line train as it was passing through Wheaton, Maryland, on April 12.
John Prentice Hicks, 39, has been charged with attempted first-degree rape, first-degree sexual offense and second-degree assault in the incident. He was extradited last week to Montgomery County and was ordered held without bond Monday.
Metro Transit Police said no other passengers were in the railcar when Mr. Hicks awakened a sleeping woman and threatened her with a knife. He raped her, took her to a different area of the train at knifepoint and then forced her to perform a sex act, police said.
Transit Police arrested Mr. Hicks hours after the alleged incident, which was included as a one-line item in a police blotter that was made public May 5.
“We knew who the person was and literally [Transit Police] had that person, so they were pursuing that person, and literally in hours we had apprehended that person,” Mr. Wiedefeld told the House subcommittee, explaining why no alert was issued to the public.
But D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said an alert should have been issued, noting the subway system’s steadily declining ridership.
“Metro is not a new system. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard of somebody being raped on a moving train,” said Ms. Norton, a Democrat and the District’s nonvoting representative in Congress. “So the worse the incident, the greater the need to get in front of it, especially at a time when they are losing riders.”
There were no rapes among the nearly 1,650 total crimes reported on the transit system in 2015.
Later Tuesday, Mr. Wiedefeld said he has directed Transit Police to make public notification of any violent crime on the day it occurs as long as an alert does not hamper an ongoing investigation.
The sexual assault follows the fatal stabbing of one teen and the fatal shooting of another within weeks of one another this spring at the Deanwood station in Northeast. An attacker bloodied a subway rider in a robbery attempt at the U Street station on Jan. 5, and a gang of youths beat up several passengers on the Yellow Line on New Year’s Day.
Mr. Wiedefeld, who became Metro’s general manager in November, already has taken steps to provide a greater police presence at subway stations, and has said that the system’s numerous cameras mean that even if a crime does occur, it’s unlikely the perpetrator will get away.
Ramon Korionoff, a spokesman for Montgomery County’s prosecutor, said Tuesday that surveillance footage at a Metro station helped police identify Mr. Hicks as the suspect in the alleged rape.
Metro operates more than 5,000 surveillance cameras in its rail system. Cameras also are located inside and outside all 1,500 Metrobuses. And every new railcar is camera-equipped.
In late February the transit agency increased by 5 percent the number of police officers patrolling the rail system when it reassigned 17 officers to patrols. Those officers formerly acted as a protective escort when money was being taken out of Metro fare card vending machines. A private firm took over those duties.
Metro also has implemented “power hour” deployments, which surge the number of officers in the late afternoon and evening hours by having shifts overlap, and reassigned limited-duty officers to increase numbers at the most crime-ridden stations.
In addition, Metro police will be bringing on a new class of officers from the training academy in April, and another is set for September. Currently, Metro employs about 470 officers.
Several lawmakers floated the idea of bringing in private contractors to do some of the “SafeTrack” maintenance plan Mr. Wiedefeld announced earlier this month. The Metro official said he plans on doing that, but added that union contracts could cause some problems.
“We can’t replace workers with contractors, but we can bring on contractors,” Mr. Wiedefeld said during Tuesday’s hearing.
He plans to bolster Metro’s workforce with contractors rather than letting contractors replace the system’s full-time employees.
Metro is negotiating a new union contract, as the current one ends this summer. Mr. Wiedefeld said he’s in negotiations with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 — which represents Metrorail and Metrobus workers — about wages, worker pensions, benefits and work rules. Everything is on the table, he said, and the deal could go into arbitration.
Mr. Wiedefeld said he has the ability to fire frontline Metro workers who aren’t doing their jobs, but he noted that under the union contract, workers can appeal their dismissal or go into arbitration over the matter.
But on the manager side, Mr. Wiedefeld has much broader authority to pink-slip bad employees. On Friday he fired 20 managers and reduced the number of people who report directly to him in an effort to streamline the transit agency.
The realignment, which was prompted by a March Customer Accountability Report, affected managers in several areas of Metro, including the system’s procurement shop, where John Shackelford, who was widely criticized for running out of train parts to fix broken cars, was laid off.
More than a third of those fired were part of rail operations and seven were senior managers.