Metro cited for safety issues at rail operations control center

Five years after smoke near the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station killed a Metrorail rider and injured 91 others, safety regulators are still finding dysfunction inside Metro’s Rail Operations Control Center.

On Tuesday, the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission cited Metro for three safety shortcomings at the center, and it gave the transit agency 30 days to come up with a plan to correct those problems.

“Chaos and dysfunction in the control center during unplanned events is a major concern and one that puts riders, workers and first responders at unnecessary risk,” said David Mayer, CEO for the commission.

Before the pandemic hit, the safety commission interviewed 21 of 26 front-line controllers at the control center. The controllers painted a picture of managers and supervisors directing them to ignore safety checklists, unexpectedly taking command of their consoles, and consequently producing operational errors that could have caused major accidents.

“Nearly all controllers said [control center] management routinely directs them to violate safety rules including rules meant to prevent electrocutions, derailments, collisions or train movements with open doors,” said Mayer at the commission’s Tuesday meeting.

In its investigation of Metro’s 2015 fatal smoke accident, the National Transportation Safety Board cited, among other things, controllers who did not understand the proper operation of the ventilation fans meant to clear smoke from tunnels. Five years later, the safety commission reports that little has apparently changed in the control center.

“Nearly all controllers we interviewed said their training on the use of ventilation fans was inadequate. Only a few controllers were familiar with the playbook on emergency fan operations that Metrorail developed after the L’Enfant Plaza event,” said Mayer.

The Metrorail Safety Commission is a 1-year-old independent watchdog agency — created in the wake of the fatal 2015 incident — with oversight and enforcement authority to bolster safety in the Metrorail system.

The commission’s findings, which Metro must meet in the next 30 days, are:

  • Provide rail controllers with proper, complete and recurring training on operating the rail system’s emergency ventilation fans.
  • Stop center managers and leaders from remotely manipulating controllers’ consoles without adequate coordination with the controller.
  • Put additional safeguards in place for when third-rail power is activated.

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