- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Federal Transit Administration has threatened to withhold funding from Metro and shut it down if it does not comply with safety directives issued by federal overseers on Saturday.

The threat came just one day after Metro officials had announced a yearlong plan to overhaul the ailing subway system and two days after a third-rail explosion had thrown metal shards onto the platform at the Federal Center station.

According to documents originally obtained by WAMU Radio, the FTA directives require Metro to quickly make four fixes to its culture: regard safety as more important than operational convenience, reduce the risk of fire and smoke, improve emergency preparedness and increase training for Metro workers via a “safety standdown.”

Failure to comply would result in the federal agency withholding 25 percent of Metro’s federal funds, along with “issuing restrictions, closures or prohibitions on service as necessary.” The FTA assumed oversight of Metro safety in October.

“We need to do something different and dramatically different. This is a massive undertaking,” Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said Friday in a press conference announcing the regional transit agency’s “Safe Track” plan. “It’s like a military operation with a lot of moving parts having to work together.”

Mr. Wiedefeld, who was appointed Metro general manager in November, said his agency will implement long-term single tracking for subway trains and close the system at midnight seven days a week to overhaul the ailing system over the next year.

Beginning June 4, Metro will close completely five sections of the rail service and use single-tracking for up to 21 days to conduct repairs rather only doing that work only on weekends. The system also will shut down early on weekends. Stations normally close at 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, but closing time now will be midnight.

After the FTA issued its directives on Saturday, a Metro spokesman said Mr. Wiedefeld “met with FTA this morning and is committed to implementing the new directives.”

Metro has long been plagued by a series of smoke incidents that have endangered passengers, delayed schedules and raised concerns about the subway system’s safety and reliability. The most infamous occurred in January 2015, when a passenger was killed and more than 80 others were injured in a smoke-filled tunnel at the L’Enfant Plaza station. In March, Metro officials shut down the entire system for 29 hours to inspect power cables along the tracks.

On Thursday, an electrical arcing incident like the one that caused the deadly L’Enfant Plaza event created an explosion at the Federal Center station that federal officials said “significantly damaged track and sprayed fiery metal and ceramic projectiles onto the station platform.” Service on the Blue, Orange and Silver lines later was suspended at the station after a second smoke incident occurred that day.

The FTA blamed Metro’s Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC) for not taking the time to do a thorough inspection after Thursday morning’s explosion.

“When [Metro] maintenance personnel arrived on the scene shortly after the event and requested permission from the Rail Operations Control Center to have the track taken out of service and power removed from the third rail so that appropriate inspections could be performed, the ROCC denied that permission,” the federal agency said, adding that “trains continued to operate across this potentially dangerous track without interruption.”

Earlier this year, Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans warned that the transit agency could shut down entire rail lines for six months at a time to conduct repair and maintenance along the tracks. On Friday, he said that Mr. Wiedefeld’s “Safe Tracks” plan will cause headaches for commuters, but if the work isn’t now, the system and the safety of its riders will be in peril.

“We can’t continue as we are. We all know that,” Mr. Evans said.

The Blue Line will first see the work, with trains single-tracking for 15 days between Franconia-Springfield and Van Dorn Street. It will affect about 18,000 trips through the stations.

• Ryan M. McDermott can be reached at rmcdermott@washingtontimes.com.

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