Washington Metro

Metro sank into crisis despite decades of warnings
By Robert McCartney and Paul Duggan
Washington Post, 2016-04-25 (Monday)

[This was a five-column banner story at the top of page 1.]

[Washington] Metro’s failure-prone subway
once considered a transportation jewel —
is mired in disrepair because the transit agency neglected to heed warnings that its aging equipment and poor safety culture would someday lead to chronic breakdowns and calamities.

For nearly half a century, almost since construction of the subway system began, federal experts, civic and business groups, private transit organizations, and some Metro general managers and directors have raised red flags.

The alarms came repeatedly, at public hearings and Metro board meetings, in crash investigations and published studies, including 14 reports reviewed for this article: The agency lacked a robust institutional safety consciousness, its maintenance regime was close to negligent, and the system desperately needed a steadier, more dependable source of financing.

But generations of executives and government-appointed Metro board members, along with Washington-area politicians who ultimately dictated Metro’s spending and direction, steered the agency on a different course.

“America’s subway,” which opened in 1976 to great acclaim — promoted as a marvel of modern transit technology and design — has been reduced to an embarrassment, scorned and ridiculed from station platforms to the halls of Congress. Balky and unreliable on its best days, and hazardous, even deadly, on its worst, Metrorail is in crisis, losing riders and revenue and exhausting public confidence.

Thousands of pages of documents and dozens of interviews show that the decline of Metro is a story about head-in-the-sand leadership through its history, about political inertia and timidity among the multiple jurisdictions that govern the agency, about fateful misjudgments in strategic planning, and about cautions ignored or underestimated while the subway grew older and rot set in, just as the warnings had predicted.


FTA safety inspectors uncover more track defects that Metro missed
By Robert McCartney and Lori Aratani
Washington Post, 2016-05-02 (Lead story in Washington print edition)


Metro inspectors had overlooked the defect — which could cause a derailment —
in nine visual inspections in the preceding month, federal officials said.


Asked in an interview why Metro had not identified the track defects
before the [Federal Transit Administration] review,
[U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx] answered simply,
“They weren’t looking.”

He continued: “Our teams have been in that system for several months,
but really the rate of inspections in these months
has been more than they’ve had for quite some time.
That in itself is troubling.”

Asked whether Metro was simply not doing the inspections,
or instead was failing to do them thoroughly,
Foxx answered, “Yes” — implying that both were true.


NTSB cites ‘ineffective inspection and maintenance practices’ as causes of fatal 2015 Metro smoke incident
By Paul Duggan and Lori Aratani
Washington Post, 2016-05-04

Metro’s long history of deficiencies — including poor maintenance, a loose safety culture, a blindness to potential hazards and a chronic failure to learn from previous disasters — all contributed to last year’s deadly smoke crisis in a Yellow Line tunnel, federal officials said Tuesday in a report that reads like an indictment of the beleaguered transit agency.

“To me, this shows that [Metro], historically speaking, has had a severe learning disability,” Robert L. Sumwalt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said at a public hearing as the board finalized a report of its inquiry into the Jan. 12, 2015, smoke incident, which killed one train rider and sickened scores of others.

“Quite simply, they have not been willing to learn from prior events,” Sumwalt said. “Learning disabilities are tragic in children, but they are fatal in organizations. And literally that is true in this case.”


The NTSB also took a deep dive into Metro’s history, describing the L’Enfant Plaza crisis as a product of the transit agency’s decades-long record of shortcomings.

The report “reinforces obviously what I’ve been trying to do since day one, which is changing the culture,” said Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld, who took charge of the transit agency in late November. “We have to get infrastructure correct; we have to get the policies right; we have to get the people right.”

He said: “How has this gone on for 30 years? I think that’s the big takeaway here.”


And board members echoed their recommendation, first made last year, that Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx urge Congress to shift responsibility for Metro safety oversight from the Federal Transit Administration to the Federal Railroad Administration, which the NTSB said has greater enforcement power.

They noted that trains hauling freight have more regulation than Metro, which carries hundreds of thousands of passengers a year.

Mark Jones, a veteran NTSB official who investigated the 2009 Red Line crash near Metro’s Fort Totten station that killed nine people, said he thought that calamity would lead to more regulation of U.S. subway systems.

“I thought Fort Totten would be a game changer,” Jones said. “. . . But there’s still no regulation, and as we sit here today, a coal train operating anywhere in this country has a lot more regulation than a Metro train does.”

NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart also had harsh words for the FTA, saying its efforts to oversee the safety of Metro’s rail system continue to fall short and noting that the agency had made recommendations that are “unenforceable.”

“WMATA needs a regulatory structure with rules, inspections and enforcement,” Hart said. “The FRA can provide all three.”

Foxx has declined to follow the recommendation, and his spokeswoman, Namrata Kolachalam, reacted sharply Tuesday to the renewed call for the change.

“One would think that [Foxx] could flip a switch and move safety oversight to the FRA,” she said in a statement.
“We can’t. That’s the whole point we’ve been making.
We find the NTSB’s continued fixation with FRA oversight confounding and counterproductive.
Given the urgency of the safety issues with [Metro],
is it better to draft legislation, send it to Congress, and hope they would act?”

As members of the Washington area’s congressional delegation reacted to the report, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) also called for FRA oversight, saying that the NTSB report “once again clearly made the compelling case” for the proposed shift.

But Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) sided with Foxx. “My instinct is that Secretary Foxx made the decision to avoid internal battles, and I respect that,” Beyer said. “I think if it doesn’t work in six months, a year, we can always change that.”

[Oh, so "internal battles" are the problem.
Well, I'm sure almost any plan for action or change will bring about some sort of internal battles.
But ...
I find this something new.
The NTSB is a non-partisan, non-ideological board.
It has no known, to me, ideological agenda, bias, or slant.
It is a technocratic board trying to ensure the most effective possible management structure.
Rep. Beyer thinks we should wait until the next Metro calamity to switch to the more rigorous oversight of the FRA.
Given the history of Metro documented above, that seems like a poor call.
What is the problem with FRA oversight, please?
Is it the "internal battles" Rep. Beyer predicts,
or the delay in making the switch to FRA oversight the spokeswoman for Secretary Foxx wrote about?]


One of NTSB’s key recommendations for improving Metro unlikely to go anywhere
By Robert McCartney and Paul Duggan
Washington Post, 2016-05-05

Congress is unlikely to strengthen safety oversight of Metro as urged by the National Transportation Safety Board because of political and practical objections including stout opposition from the Obama administration, officials said Wednesday.

In a scathing public hearing Tuesday, the NTSB ratcheted up pressure for shifting responsibility of safety oversight of Metro from the transit branch of the Department of Transportation to its railroad branch.

The NTSB strongly restated its “urgent” recommendation from September to transfer such oversight from the Federal Transit Administration to the Federal Railroad Administration. It complained that the FTA’s oversight was only temporary and that the FRA had greater expertise, regulatory powers and resources to do the job.


[Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.)], despite agreeing with the NTSB on the issue, has not proposed legislation to require shifting responsibility from the FTA to the FRA. He said in a statement Wednesday that he would not sponsor such a bill unless Foxx requests it.

In scathing report, FTA blasts Metro track maintenance program
By Martine Powers and Faiz Siddiqui
Washington Post, 2016-08-08: August 8 at 3:13 PM

A new Federal Transit Administration report blasts Metro’s track inspection and repair protocol for “systemic safety deficiencies” and issued 12 corrective actions that Metro must take to overhaul its track maintenance program.

Among the problems cited by the FTA: Metro officials knew of problems, but did not shut down the section of track involved in the July 29 derailment because they needed it for single-tracking as part of SafeTrack surges involving the Orange and Silver Lines.

The 36-page report and corrective actions issued are the result of months of investigations into Metro’s track maintenance practices, and outline systemic problems with the protocol used to conduct routine repairs and track work – issues that became even more apparent late last month when a Silver Line train derailed just outside of East Falls Church station.

[Read the FTA report here]

The issues with an interlocking where that train derailed were known to Metro officials, but the track was not taken out of service because it was used as a transfer point for trains during SafeTrack, the Federal Transit Administration said in a report slated to be released Monday.

“These conditions clearly exceeded allowable safety parameters specified in [Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s] track safety standards, and were not found or addressed by WMATA personnel prior to the derailment,” the FTA wrote.

FTA “encouraged WMATA to include this track in its SafeTrack program, and specifically to prioritize work between East Falls Church to Ballston, as one of the first three SafeTrack surges,” the agency said in its report on Metro’s track integrity. “The particular interlocking involved in the derailment was not part of this initial surge because it was used to support single tracking operations.”

FTA, which assumed safety oversight for Metro’s rail operations in October, said components on the segment of track from Vienna to Ballston “are reaching the end of their useful life.”


In its report, FTA also issued a scathing analysis of Metro’s track inspections, finding that the agency’s track maintenance program doesn’t allow inspectors enough time to make needed fixes, and fails to account for variances in track types, environments and volume of train traffic. FTA said Metro’s maintenance manual “contains outdated references, confusing and conflicting information on tracks standards and requirements and does not clearly specify minimum safety standards.”

“As a consequence, the procedure for WMATA track inspectors and supervisors to use the Manual to assess track conditions and clearly identify which conditions warrant speed restrictions is not well understood by track inspectors or track supervisors,” the FTA said.

The FTA concluded that Metro’s track inspectors needed further training and mentoring to address deficiencies in knowledge and experience.

[Here is FTA’s safety directive]

In the accompanying safety directive, the agency outlined 12 specific required actions, which include: developing additional training and certification for track inspections, establishing a new track inspection schedule, adding personnel to the roster of employees tasked with conducting inspections, revising the inspection manual, and developing formal procedures on how to report and prioritize issues with tracks that need immediate attention.

Metro has 30 days to respond to the report, and 60 days to come up with a plan on how they will execute the prescribed actions.

Fight over fired mechanic shows how union, Metro management deserve each other
By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post, 2016-08-24


The dispute over the mechanic’s firing begins in January 2015, after a Yellow Line train stalled in a smoke-filled tunnel near L’Enfant Plaza and became engulfed in the noxious fumes. One person died, and dozens were sickened.

In the aftermath, investigators discovered that a circuit board for one of the fans that removed smoke from the Yellow Line tunnel had burned out. It was also discovered that Seyoum Haile, a senior mechanic, had falsified preventive maintenance inspection reports on the fan, court documents say. When confronted with discrepancies in those inspection reports during the post-accident investigation, Haile also lied, Metro’s management says. In court documents, Metro accused Haile of failing to discover a latent problem with the circuit board that could impair its functioning during an emergency. So it canned him on Feb. 17, 2015, in the name of keeping Metro safe.

But the story is more complex than that. And the union is on to something when it argues that Haile, who had been employed with the agency for 13 years, had only been following routine procedure in a workplace where management fostered incompetence and allowed people to make stuff up as they went along.


During arbitration proceedings, Metro produced evidence that Haile was supposed to have inspected the tunnel fan and tested its operation on three different occasions in September, October and November 2014. But computer records cited by Metro showed that the the fan had not been operated — either by local or remote control — on those occasions. Metro says Haile submitted six false maintenance reports about those inspections and lied about them during the post-accident investigation.


A deeper look at the documents shows why the arbitrator would eventually rule that Haile’s dismissal was excessive. On page after page, the documents show that Haile was not some employee who was pretending to conduct inspections on fans. But he had been going about his work in haphazard fashion and failing to document inspection reports for some time, all with the tacit blessing of superiors.

The reason for this was that the practice of running fan tests — and heaven knows what else at Metro — had become so inefficient and sloppy that Haile and other mechanics did not always conduct their inspections in a systematic way or fill out their maintenance reports properly.

During these inspections, the mechanics operated the fans from nearby switches or by remote control. When mechanics wanted to run a test remotely, they had to contact Metro’s Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC). The ROCC staff sometimes put the mechanics on hold, failed to call back, or had trouble locating the correct switch for the fans in question.

On one of the last inspections Haile and a co-worker conducted on the fan before the fatal Yellow Line incident, he was heard in the background on an audio recording respectfully trying to help the ROCC official locate the right switch. But the ROCC operator couldn’t find it and hung up. He and his coworker went to work on another fan but did not return to the original one.

These fan tests could last as long as 10 minutes or as little as three minutes. But sometimes Haile and other mechanics had to wait for hours to conduct a test or even come back a day later to complete the inspections – and leave part of their inspection reports blank until then.

In fact, Haile’s supervisor, Nicholas Perry, acknowledged in arbitration testimony that he gave out pre-signed inspection reports to his crew. The forms said “reviewed by a supervisor,” even if that were not the case, a practice Perry testified that he has since discontinued.

Perry also testified that Haile’s inspection documents weren’t properly filled out for an eight-month period – from January until August 2014. But Perry also testified that he hadn’t noticed this until sometime in September or October. It was only then that Perry asked Haile to come in and fill in the blanks.


Haile wasn’t even in the country the last time the Yellow Line fan was tested before the Jan. 12, 2015 smoke incident. That was done by two other employees in December — and their inspection reports also didn’t match ROCC testing records. One of the workers was disciplined after the deadly event with a three-day suspension; the other wasn’t disciplined at all.

In other words, neither employees nor their supervisors seemed greatly concerned about ensuring that the tunnel fans were inspected in a systematic fashion, and their routine for doing so was so slapdash that it might seem funny if not for the consequences. Metro knew this and apparently did next to nothing about it until someone died.

On April 8, the arbitration board issued its ruling. Instead of being fired, Borchini held that Haile should be suspended without pay for 180 days — hardly a slap on the wrist. As part of his reasoning, the arbitrator cited Metro’s “systemic maintenance practices.”


[My thought:
Okay, so maybe Haile wasn't the only one who failed to do his duty.
But that doesn't excuse what he did.
If Metro wants to give a clear signal that falsifying inspection reports will no longer be tolerated,
I don't see why they shouldn't be allowed to give that signal.]

Metro fires six after derailment probe finds that inspectors falsified records
By Faiz Siddiqui and Martine Powers
Washington Post, 2016-12-15

Metro fired six workers after determining that nearly half of the agency’s 60-person track-inspection department created a pattern of fabrication and negligence that led to the derailment of a Silver Line train in July, the transit agency said Thursday.

The fired employees falsified track-inspection records for as long as three years, officials said. A criminal investigation ended without charges, but the findings of Metro’s internal review have been sent to prosecutors to decide whether to pursue other legal action.

Six more terminations or suspensions are pending and a total of 28 workers received disciplinary action, Metro said.

“This review revealed a disturbing level of indifference, lack of accountability and flagrant misconduct in a portion of Metro’s track department, which is completely intolerable,” Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said in a statement. “It is reprehensible that any supervisor or midlevel manager would tolerate or encourage this behavior, or seek to retaliate against those who objected.”

The review showing negligence and falsification represents the most damning indictment of Metro’s lack of safety culture since nine people died in a 2009 crash on the Red Line.

The National Transportation Safety Board and others have repeatedly faulted Metro for placing a lower priority on safety than on earning revenue by keeping the trains running. But evidence had not emerged that workers were involved in systematic efforts at deception that put riders’ lives at risk.

Wiedefeld’s decision to fire the workers and announce the discipline publicly also represents his highest-profile attempt to change Metro’s safety culture since he took over about a year ago.



One-third of Metro’s track inspection department has been fired for falsifying records, Wiedefeld confirms
By Martine Powers and Faiz Siddiqui
Washington Post, 2017-01-26

Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld confirmed Thursday that
he has now fired 21 members of the agency’s track inspection department
as part of an investigation into falsified inspection records.

Wiedefeld told members of the Metro board safety committee that
the terminations include 16 track inspectors and five supervisors —
about one-third of the existing department.
Fourteen other workers have also been disciplined as part of the investigation, which began last August and is now concluded.

Though the investigation was prompted by a derailment near East Falls Church in July,
Wiedefeld acknowledged Thursday that
most of the firings had nothing to do with
the stretch of defective tracks that caused the derailment.
Instead, he said, investigators believe they uncovered inspection reports
that were falsified for other parts of the Silver Line,
rather than the specific crossover where the derailment occurred.
He did not say whether inspection records were found to be falsified on other lines of the system.

“They were systemic issues we were having in that department,” he said.

The investigation placed a particularly close focus on
the role of supervisors in the alleged falsifications.
Wiedefeld fired nearly half of his staff of track inspection supervisors,
five out of a team of 12.
He said there is no evidence that there was any falsification of attendance records or time sheets,
and the employees’ alleged wrongdoing did not rise to the level of criminal charges.


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