WASHINGTON — Nearly eight years after a devastating Red Line crash prompted major changes to Metro operations, Metro is only now planning to add the people needed to make them work.
After the 2009 crash, Metro switched its trains to manual operations, putting much more responsibility onto the shoulders of controllers. But Metro has just begun taking the steps to hire the extra controllers needed.
“Just so that I understand … as we’ve depended more on our people, has there been no change in the requirements versus when we were utilizing [automatic operations]? Is that the case? That there was no change at all on the people?,” Prince George’s County Metro Board member Malcolm Augustine asked Metro’s chief operating officer Thursday.
“Prior to what we want to do now, correct,” said Metro chief operations officer Joe Leader. “There was no change. We were just giving more responsibility to the controllers. That’s really what was happening.”
The new plans are meant to address federal safety recommendations and directives after inspectors found overworked controllers and at times chaotic scenes in the Rail Operations Control Center. Metro has identified an immediate need for 33 more positions, a 66 percent increase over current staffing levels.
“We’re expanding the unit itself so that we can start to divide up the workload properly,” Leader said.
Controllers in the Rail Operations Control Center are responsible for all rail traffic, which now includes keeping trains spaced apart with “schedule adjustments,” ensuring train operators are aware of work crews on the tracks, and handling any emergency situations or service disruptions.
They have had to do more work, without any extra help, ever since Metro switched to manual operations after the 2009 Red Line crash. The crash was tied in part to a failure of part of the automatic train operation system. Metrorail was designed from the beginning to mainly run in automatic mode.
As part of the new hires and training process, Metro expects to for the first time have enough controllers and supervisors to launch a fourth radio desk, originally planned to launch with the start of the Silver Line in 2014.
“The intention is now to staff it,” Leader told D.C. Metro Board member Tom Bulger.
“So the console has been sitting there at the ROCC since 2013, Silver Line opened in 2014, and now we’re just getting around to staffing the Silver Line console? Wow, OK,” Bulger said.
In addition to recruitment problems, Metro says high turnover rates have added to staffing problems as workers retire or leave for better-paying or less-stressful jobs in other parts of the agency. The average controller now has fewer than three years of experience in the control center.
“These are high-stress jobs with little to no margin for error. Mistakes cannot be tolerated, and auditing performance on an ongoing basis is key. Training alone does not make a good controller. Training combined with experience and the right personal characteristics — temperament and disposition — all contribute to making a good controller,” Leader said.
Among other incentives, Metro is considering raising pay to keep workers in the control center.
Metro Board member and Federal Railroad Administration Chief Safety Officer Robert Lauby hopes with better training and a reduced workload, the number of problems tied to controllers could drop.
Return to automatic operations?
While a return to automatic operations could help the Rail Operations Control Center, Metro has no plans to resume the smoother and more consistent rides any time soon.
Worker safety concerns are the latest primary reason a return to automatic train operation has been ruled out, Leader said. He and Chief Safety Officer Pat Lavin are not confident the automatic system would safely account for work crews, since it would be entirely up to train operators to switch to manual mode near work crews if needed.
Leader believes the lack of a way to ensure the train operator has switched to manual mode in those situations could be a serious flaw in Metro’s original design.
Metro had announced two years ago that the Red Line would return to limited automatic operation, but Leader said that was short-lived.
“Until we are satisfied that we‘ve covered everything, that we have whatever technology we can do, whatever procedures we have in place, Pat [Lavin] and I feel it’s better off not to be in ATO and stay in manual mode,” he said.
A contractor is reviewing the automatic train operation system again, and could submit its report by October. Leader said a decision on whether to return to the smoother rides would not be made before that report is complete.
General Manager Paul Wiedefeld backed Leader’s caution. “There’s pluses and minuses with ATO,” Wiedefeld said, adding that Metro has a lot of other priorities to focus on right now.
Metro has been working to replace pieces of the systems that would be required before any return to automatic operations on other lines.