The Federal Transit Administration has threatened to cut a quarter of Metro’s grant funding if the transit system fails to put in place a plan to better protect track workers and inspectors.
The move was prompted by at least four incidents in which violations to Metro’s safety procedures “led to unauthorized workers on the roadway and trains entering protected work zones at track speed,” the federal agency said in a letter to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA).
“I find that unsafe conditions and practices exist that present a substantial risk of death or personal injury to roadway workers at WMATA,” FTA Associate Administrator Thomas Littleton said in the letter.
The most high-profile incident occurred last year, when a train nearly struck two federal inspectors on the track near Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
Due to a miscommunication, the train operator came around a blind corner going faster than the 10 mph speed limit.
A Metro track worker saw the train and yelled to the other to jump out of the way. No one was hurt in the incident.
The FTA directed Metro to fix six deficiencies, including requiring the use of at least one redundant protection method to hold trains outside of a work zone, reducing rail controller distractions and workload and requiring 100 percent repeat-back radio protocol for all communications between rail controllers, operators and workers.
Metro said in a statement that it already is working on strengthening worker protections in the system. Officials already have implemented procedures in the Rail Control Center requiring controllers to document the signals they are canceling to protect workers.
The controllers also must record specific trains alerted to personnel on the right of way during track closures.
“This procedure is being routinely audited by management to ensure compliance,” Metro said. “We will provide a full and timely response to all of the recommendations in the FTA’s letter.”
Metro also said it’s taking other corrective actions including implementing the “Protran technology warning system” as a secondary measure for roadway protection, which is funded through an FTA grant.
The technology, meant to be a backup to normal safety measures, uses armbands that flash as a train approaches giving workers extra time to get out of the way.
Metro’s worker union applauded the FTA’s letter, saying the agency’s “observations about fast moving trains through work zones are only the tip of the iceberg of the fatal flaws and ineffective safety culture at WMATA.”
“It is unacceptable and dangerous for WMATA’s flagging system to depend on hope and good luck to protect track workers,” said Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents thousands of Metro workers. “It is long overdue for WMATA to develop an adequate primary flagging system to provide positive protection to warn, slow and hold approaching trains until all employees are determined to be clear of oncoming trains.”