Safety watchdog says Metro needs to fix patchy communication system

Metro’s communication devices, such as radios, are critical during an emergency. But an in-depth audit released this week by Metro’s safety watchdog says the agency isn’t doing enough to ensure communication systems are properly maintained, risking failure when they’re needed most.

Investigators at the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission spent five months looking into Metro’s communications system, and their report details a range of safety gaps, including:

  • Supervisors not performing frequent safety checks on radios.
  • Workers failing to file correct forms that alert about ongoing issues.
  • Little on-the-job training; and
  • A backlog of maintenance reports.

Among the findings of the report: Even when issues with radio communications are reported in the field, Metro frequently closes out work orders designed to troubleshoot the problems, citing “no trouble found.”

The report says 45% of trouble calls for radio communication are eventually listed as “no trouble found.”

The commission’s report concluded, “This indicates that, despite problems actually being experienced in the field, upon inspecting the equipment or system, technicians did not identify and address the reported issues.”

In one example cited in the report, Metro Transit Police personnel reported experiencing radio communications issues during a passenger evacuation between the Georgia Avenue-Petworth and Fort Totten stations, forcing personnel to use cellphones to relay information.

There were also radio communication glitches during another evacuation, this time during a runaway train incident near Rhode Island Avenue station.

“Metrorail downplayed radio communications problems during the event, did not provide an investigative resolution to the issue, failed to examine and address root causes, and did not offer effective alternatives,” the commission’s report said.

Another safety gap identified by the report involved the role of supervisors: They’re supposed to review and certify that equipment meets acceptable performance levels, but the commission found missing paperwork and signatures were routinely missing.

In interviews with the auditors, one official in Metro’s communications branch said some supervisors are concerned about signing the forms “because they are unable to personally verify the work and fear possible future implications should a safety event occur.”

The commission also found some of the systems Metro uses — such as the public address system for the first segment of the Silver Line, which opened in 2014 — lacked detailed instructions and procedures for performing maintenance. That has led technicians to conduct preventive maintenance using their own handwritten maintenance manuals, the report found.

In March, investigators also discovered standing water inside the communications room at the Fort Totten Station, and an unresolved work order for repairs that was at least 40 days old.

“(Investigators) encountered standing water, used rags, a bucket and a squeegee tool used to redirect water,” the report said.

WSMC later advised Metrorail that the water “was an urgent safety concern requiring immediate action.” The matter was later resolved.

Metro CEO and General Manager Randy Clarke has 30 days to create and submit an action plan for each issue.

“We appreciate their oversight,” said Clarke. “We’re going to be working through that report with our chief safety officer.”

Communication issues are nothing new for Metro. The deadly smoke incident at L’Enfant Plaza, in 2015 revealed serious lapses and since then Metro has been working on long-term plans to install and activate a new radio system.

The project, which involves below-ground work as well as above-ground towers, is now about halfway done, according to this week’s report, and Metro has already purchased 5,400 digital multiband radios, most of which have been distributed to personnel.

Responding to the report, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said, “Safety is first. We have an independent safety commission. My hope is that the commission works hand-in-hand with the management.”

WTOP’s Jack Moore contributed to this report.

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