Metro wants to deal with its ‘air traffic control’ problem

WASHINGTON — The beating heart of the Metrorail system that has been at the center of a long series of problems will be the focus of a new review aimed at turning things around.

At Metro’s request, the American Public Transportation Association will bring experts from other transit agencies to the area late next month to review problems in the Rail Operations Control Center.

It effectively functions like air traffic control for the rail system, with responsibility for train and vehicle movements and many communications about work zones, inspections and testing, as well as monitoring alarms and reports of problems across the system.

Significant confusion in the center known as the ROCC (pronounced “rock”), few key checklists and issues with training, basic communication and execution have emerged in a series of incidents.

A controller said that during the 2015 smoke incident, when Carol Glover died on a smoke-filled train near L’Enfant Plaza, the right hand did not know what the left hand was doing.

Most recently, someone in the control center failed to properly input changes for a work zone which, combined with communications failures, led to a packed Red Line train sitting in a tunnel near Farragut North. Two riders decided on their own to take the risk of exiting the train into the tunnel.

“Everything that happens on Washington Metro begins and ends at the control center, and I think a peer review of that operation would be most helpful,” said Metro Board member and Federal Railroad Administration Safety Officer Robert Lauby.

American Public Transportation Association Program Director Charles Joseph said he knows, from a just-completed review of Metro’s power systems, that rail controllers often do not give track workers the permissions needed to get work done, especially overnight.

“The controllers there have a large task on their hands, and engineering staff have stated that [with] the workload of these controllers, they are unable to obtain track allocation in a reasonable time frame,” Joseph said.

The examination of the ROCC aims “to gauge performance against industry practices and examine its organizational structure, the training, the resources available, and any other observations and recommendations,” Joseph said. The review has been scheduled for late October.

Findings from the recent review of the power system were presented less than a month after the experts interviewed selected Metro workers and visited Metro facilities.

That review found additional problems with training and experience for inspection and maintenance groups.

“The goal here is to be transparent, to find out what we’ve got, and then to come up with plans to tackle it,” General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said.

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