FTA details concerns about poor maintenance, track integrity amid safety blitz

WASHINGTON — The Federal Transit Administration says Metro is failing to address the root causes of track and other equipment problems.

Amid a safety inspection blitz that began this week, the FTA said Monday that as Metro’s new safety oversight agency, it sent back Metro’s internal investigation report into the Aug. 6 derailment near the Smithsonian Station “because it failed to appropriately assess the root cause of the track condition that was identified.”

Employees didn’t detect that the track near the station was too wide, and an alert from a track geometry inspection was deleted about four weeks before the derailment. That alert should have meant the track was immediately taken out of service. Instead, trains were allowed to continue running through the unsafe area. Metro’s safety officer resigned after an empty train derailed leading to major service disruptions for commuters.

“FTA’s action on track integrity is an outcome of continuing issues with WMATA’s track conditions and poor preventative maintenance as most recently evidenced by the March 14, 2016, arcing insulator fire near McPherson Square Station and the subsequent system-wide shutdown to perform emergency safety inspections of third rail jumper cable conditions,” the statement says.

In addition to track inspections and a review of Metro’s entire track maintenance program, the FTA is also looking into the serious danger posed by rail equipment rolling away in rail yards because workers don’t apply the emergency brakes.

“In its WMATA safety oversight role, FTA has confirmed several instances where employees in WMATA rail yards are not following the transit agency’s own rules on this issue with the result that rail vehicles have rolled away striking other equipment or infrastructure,” the statement says.

Across the rail system, worker safety has been a major issue and several Metro employees have died in recent years after being struck on the tracks.

The third focus of the federal safety blitz is trains running red signals, an issue the agency ordered Metro to address in December.

The FTA says Metro has had five red signal violations just since the agency assumed safety oversight in the fall, and 50 total since 2012.

“WMATA’s trend line has been going in the wrong direction. WMATA had more red signal overruns in 2015 than in either of the preceding two years and these occurrences have continued into 2016,” the statement says.

Investigators will analyze Metro’s rules, training and technology; interview those involved in past incidents; and review records from the troubled Rail Operations Control Center.

Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld asked for a similar internal review last month after one of the latest violations nearly led to a head-on collision between a train that had just gone out of service and another sitting on a platform with passengers on board.

After “several weeks” of inspections in all three focus areas, the FTA expects to have final reports from the safety blitz and potentially new safety directives for Metro by early summer.

 

Stetson Miller

Stetson Miller is an anchor and reporter for WTOP. He has worked in TV newsrooms for the last several years in New York, Baltimore, Washington and Charleston, SC.

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