‘Radical action’: Metro urged to temporarily shut down service to address control center issues

At least two members of the Metro Board say they support a temporary shutdown of the system after a blistering independent safety audit concluded the Rail Operations Control Center, which acts as Metro’s nerve center, is marred by a “toxic workplace culture” that puts riders at risk.

Speaking during a board meeting Thursday morning, David Horner, who represents the federal government on the eight-member Metro board, urged “radical action” to fix the problems at the rail operation center, which is also known as the ROCC.

“You might consider a partial or total stand down of the system while the ROCC is reconstituted on an expedited basis,” Horner told Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld.

He pointed to the 24-hour shutdown of the system in 2016 that Metro used to perform a systemwide check of electrical cables following a series of electrical fires and smoke incidents.

Horner said the impact now of a temporary shutdown would be limited since Metro ridership is at historic lows because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Now that the dysfunction of the ROCC has been laid before the public, you would receive robust support from many quarters for decisive action,” Horner said.

The Sept. 8 report, published by the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, found ROCC employees reported racial and sexual harassment and were directed by some higher-ups to manipulate safety investigations.

In addition, the report found the ROCC is beset by high turnover. Multiple employees reported working more than 20 days in a row without a break, according to the report.

Michael Goldman, a Metro Board member who represents Maryland on the panel, said he supported Horner’s call for drastic action.

“We would actually ask you to consider that, to treat this as a crisis,” he told Wiedefeld.

It’s unclear if Metro officials weighed in on Horner’s proposal to temporarily halt service because of a glitch in Metro’s livestream during the meeting.

Regarding safety issues, the audit said some Metro officials had sought to interfere in safety investigations, singling out Lisa Woodruff, Metro’s senior vice president for rail services, who reportedly told controllers not to talk to the safety commission, to resist required corrective actions and to “paint a rosy picture” of the ROCC for an internal team working to revamp the beleaguered operations center.

Following the report’s release, Woodruff was reassigned to another position, according to a report in The Washington Post. Metro has also hired an outside law firm to conduct its own review.

Regarding the allegations documented in the report, Wiedefeld said Thursday, “Any type of harassment is unacceptable in the agency. And, clearly, if directions were given not to be as open and transparent in anything that the safety commission is looking at, (that) is unacceptable as well.”

But he said he wouldn’t take any action until the outside law firm had finished its review.

“We are going to find out what happened there first, before we take any action on those (findings),” he said. “We want to get to the root of it.”

Overall, Metro has 45 days to respond to the safety audit’s 21 separate findings.

Among the other problems plaguing the ROCC, according to the report: Extremely high turnover, which has led to a lack of institutional knowledge, especially during emergency situations.

Addressing the ROCC’s reputation as having a “revolving door” and being unable to retain employees, Metro Chief Operating Officer Joe Leader said there was a large “exodus” of longtime employees from the center in 2012, and Metro didn’t have a succession plan for building the ROCC workforce back up.

The center used to employ veterans of the transit agency. Now, the average years of service of a controller in the ROCC is about two and a half years, he said.

Leader said it’s hard to retain ROCC employees in part because of the stressful nature of the job.

“I have to tell you: It is not a normal job,” he told board members. “You have to have … a certain demeanor to be inside that ROCC.”

He said an employee’s day may start out normal, “and then all of a sudden, all hell breaks loose and you have to react to it, you have to make split decisions.”

Leader added, “We’ve had some people within the first year of getting out of training leave. Could it be part of the culture? It could be. Or could it be that person just didn’t want to have that job anymore? There’s many reasons why people have left.”

Responding to reports that some ROCC controllers had worked for nearly three weeks straight without a day off, Chief Safety Officer Theresa Impastato said, “It’s utterly unacceptable that our employees were working that number of successive days.”

She said Metro is working with the union that represents controllers on a new fatigue policy.

She added that the ROCC recently faced “severe” staffing shortages because of the coronavirus.

Even before the release of the safety commission’s audit, Metro was working on a top-to-bottom overhaul of the ROCC. The agency hired Jayme Johnson to work as the director of change management to transform the center’s operations.

Among his first priorities is overseeing the nationwide search for a new ROCC director. The previous director was reassigned to another position at Metro in June.

“This search is pretty thorough, and we’ve got some resumes already under review,” Johnson said. Metro hopes to make a hire by the end of the year, he added.

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