WASHINGTON — A Metro track inspector accused of copying reports month after month before a train derailed near East Falls Church this summer defended his actions Wednesday, hours after Metro fired him over what he said were separate accusations of track inspection failures that he also denies.
“What they’re calling fabrication is … the normal process, absolutely normal, not our idea. It’s the way it’s done,” Trap Thomas said.
He was on the way to inspect tracks as usual Wednesday, he said, when he got a text to come in for a meeting. A Metro manager told him he was fired because of other track inspections Metro found were not done at Vienna and Medical Center, not because of the failed inspections of the crossover at East Falls Church, where a train derailed in July.
The inspection issues emerged from Metro’s audit and criminal investigation of the derailment that began after reports, including those filed by Thomas, showed the exact same information copied over month after month, year after year.
“We use the switch report from the month before because we have to verify whatever defects, whatever measurements they want us to show,” Thomas explained.
He said that the distance between the tracks really did remain exactly the same down to 1/16th of an inch, and that there were consistently exactly 15 defective rail ties in the area. Track inspectors can impose speed restrictions or take track out of service entirely for safety issues like rail ties that are no longer supporting the tracks.
“What they claim is that I falsified because for months, the measurements stayed the same. … But, as I’ve said, they use steel and hard wood. They install these things at specific measurements. The measurements are not supposed to change,” he said.
Thomas (whose first name was spelled Trapp in documents Metro provided the National Transportation Safety Board) said that the information he put on the form was what he found at the switch, and that the heavy use of the crossover during round-the-clock track work could have caused the problem to grow quickly.
Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 representatives said a total of seven of the track inspectors it represents have now been fired — in addition to at least five supervisors — as part of the discipline for nearly half of the Metro track inspection department following the investigations.
They also said Metro had set a policy in 2010 requiring that any switches used for continuous single-tracking be inspected at least every 12 hours during the time trains were making unusual movements. That was not done in this case, and Metro only ordered special inspections of crossovers that were to be used for 24/7 work zones after the derailment.
Union officials said Metro management should have known about and addressed over decades the fact that work was not being done or done correctly, including at the East Falls Church derailment site, where Thomas said he took track out of service for repairs in 2011, but only saw the equivalent of a “band aid” applied.
“When I think of falsification, I think of an act that a person committed blatantly in order to lie about an incident. When you have individuals who have been following a pattern of doing a job for the same way day after day, year after year … this is the way the work has been done,” ATU 689 President Jackie Jeter said.
Union officials said all of the workers it represents who have been terminated over the track inspection issues have been told they were fired for falsifying something other than the East Falls Church reports themselves, although one supervisor was fired directly due to that incident.
The union, which represents more Metro workers than any other, complained that the workers, including Thomas and two others fired on Wednesday, have not been given enough specific detail about why they were fired to understand the decisions.
Some of the workers, the union said, were apparently fired for things that happened up to three years ago. The union also said that the firings distract from other issues and simply lead to newer, less experienced workers doing the same jobs.
Until recently, the union said, track inspectors were trained when initially taking the job and with brief recertification tests. Last year, Metro launched enhanced training through the University of Tennessee, and the agency is now updating track inspection and maintenance manuals after a series of reports found that many workers were not familiar with some of the basics.
“Where did the falsification come in? Was the person who trained them to do it 30 years ago wrong?” Jeter asked rhetorically. “Was it the manager who was responsible? … Whose responsibility was it to teach him nine years ago when he first came here that that’s not the right way to do it? And whose responsibility was it to catch the fact that it was being done wrong?
“That’s where I have a problem, because somebody failed them as workers, and that person has not been fired yet,” she said.
Metro has fired or demoted a number of supervisors tied to the track inspection review, and Jeter acknowledged that failures to follow up on safety issues led to Metro’s chief safety officer getting forced out over an August 2015 derailment.
“A true culture of safety requires that we hold ourselves and each other accountable,” General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said in a statement issued as the union spoke to reporters. “We cannot condone falsification of documents, and I stand by the actions we have taken that hold both frontline and management employees accountable,” he said.
Jeter cited other long-running issues regarding safety culture and more that have never been addressed. She recalled hearing a train operator on the radio in 1996 begging to run his train in manual mode but being denied. In automatic mode on that icy day, the train skidded through the end of the line, and the operator was killed.
In two expert reports on safety culture and track inspection, the union argued that the discipline and firings could cut into the skill level of the inspectors and dissuade them from participating in safety programs.
Otherwise, the reports largely mirror years of findings from the Federal Transit Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board and other experts, but Jeter said Metro still needs to learn lessons from directives and recommendations that are a decade old or more.
As they have in the past, the union argued that workers need more training; that more workers are needed to do certain jobs like track inspections safely; that Metro should listen more to feedback from workers; and that Metro should follow through on the many federal safety recommendations and directives.
A letter the union sent to Congress Wednesday provided little new detail, though. The union had promised at a December hearing that it would provide specifics about intimidation and any direction from supervisors to falsify reports.
Wiedefeld, who has led Metro for just over a year, has issued memos over the last year directing more focus on safety, and has cited increased speed restrictions as a small sign things may be turning around.
Wednesday, the union said that inspectors are still at times getting assigned too many switches to inspect in a single day, and that workers are accused of falsifying inspection reports all across the system.
Thomas alleged again Wednesday — as he had in an interrogation shortly after the East Falls Church derailment — that there is a culture of retaliation and fear that has led some track inspectors to avoid putting speed restrictions in place. But another long-time track inspector said that he had not experienced retaliation.
The review of inspections following the East Falls Church derailment revealed that in May, three inspectors on the Silver Line apparently reported over the radio that they were moving from one monthly switch inspection to another so quickly that Metro concluded the inspections could not possibly have been done, or at least done correctly.
Three inspectors and a supervisor were fired due to those inspection reports, as part of the 28 people disciplined across the track department.
Thomas said it was normal for him to find hundreds of crumbling rail ties or other issues along the Orange Line before the 24/7 track work this summer, when rail ties were replaced. In one inspection — where he identified more than 180 problems rated at Metro’s second-most-serious level —there were more than 1,000 failing rail ties in all between Ballston and West Falls Church, he said.
“I found plenty of times that the only way that maintenance came out to fix anything, no matter how bad I said it was, is if I slowed the trains down,” Thomas said.