Safety panel: Metro put employees ‘at risk’ by powering up 3rd rail with workers in zone

When Metro workers make track repairs, the power to the third rail, which could be lethal, gets shut off. There’s a detailed procedure for making sure everyone is clear of the work zone before the power gets turned on, but a report from the Metro safety commission says Metro isn’t following it, “continuing to put its personnel at risk of serious injury or death.”

The May 17 report from the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission says that “elements of Metrorail have a culture that accepts noncompliance with written operational rules, instructions, and manuals” and orders Metro, going forward, to limit the number of simultaneous track repairs that require shutting power down.

The report focuses on an event April 26 near the College Park station, where power was restored to a work zone that was operating in the predawn hours while workers were still “on the roadway” — in the track area.

The worker in charge of letting Metro’s Power Desk know it was safe to turn the third rail back on “returned a tag” — essentially, gave a thumbs-up — while workers were still in the roadway, the report said. Mistakes happen, so under the procedure, the worker in charge is supposed to notify the rail traffic controller as well.

They didn’t — a sign that the returned tag could have been a mistake, which it was. But the the power was turned back on anyway.

The report says that Metro has repeatedly assured the commission that the newly configured Power Desk, which launched in March, had plenty of protection against improper power restoration, but that “in fact, Power Desk personnel can act independently outside of the established safety process.”

Another, seemingly similar, “safety event” happened April 3, although the report says it’s unclear what exactly happened, because the calls between the workers and the Power Desk and rail traffic controller aren’t available.

And three times already in May, procedures weren’t followed by workers in multiple departments, leading to electrified third rails in work zones where workers were still operating, including an incident Saturday when Metro Transit Police officers had to go onto the roadway at the Columbia Heights station for an emergency.

Power Desk controllers aren’t following procedures because it results in “a quicker process,” the report said, but added that a slower process, one that makes sure everyone is clear before power is restored, is necessary to ensure safety.

“Without cultural change, no amount of training will be sufficient,” the report says. “For designed checks and balances to be effective, the culture must respect these redundancies as enhancing safety — not view them as extraneous time consumers.”

The report adds that “despite Metrorail’s pre-launch representation, the Power Desk is not sufficiently staffed.” The Power Desk worker who turned the power on in the April 26 incident was more than 10 hours into working a 12-hour shift for the sixth day in a row.

In a statement, Metro said they acknowledged the panel’s findings “and shares the desire to address these safety issues rapidly and conclusively.” The agency said that when they found out about the April 26 incident, “Metro took immediate actions to assure procedural compliance and has drafted revisions to our previous corrective action plans to address the procedural escapes and organizational failures that led to the incident. We are reviewing our actions against the WMSC findings and order to ensure full alignment.”

Metro added, “The process of cultural change is neither swift nor simple, and this incident compels us to continue to expand our transformation efforts into areas of the organization that intersect with the [Rail Operations Control Center].”

Request denied

Metro submitted a corrective action plan for the Power Desk — an acknowledgment that safety procedures required by the commission had been implemented. In the report, the commission denied the request.

The report was issued hours after Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld announced that he was moving up his retirement date by a month, and Chief Operating Officer Joe Leader resigned.

Those moves themselves came a day after Metro said nearly half of its 500 operators have lapsed recertification, causing the removal of 72 operators. The decrease in operators caused delays in the Green and Yellow lines Monday.

WTOP’s Jose Umaña contributed to this report.

Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2013 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He's the author of "A Walking Tour of the Georgetown Set" and "I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival."

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