Safety watchdog: Some Metro train operators may not have knowledge, skills to safely operate trains

Metro Transit Police officers, secure the entrance to L’Enfant Plaza Station in Washington, Monday, Jan. 12, 2015. Metro officials say one of the busiest stations in downtown Washington has been evacuated because of smoke. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)(AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

The independent agency that oversees safety on Metro’s rail system released a new report Wednesday, revealing concerns that some train operators may not have the “knowledge and skills needed to safely operate trains.”

According to the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, Metro has a habit of not fully complying with its safety training requirements for operators.

There are “deficiencies and omissions in the train operator certification process,” the commission said.

“Consequently, Metrorail cannot validate that personnel who are operating trains can safely carry out their duties,” according to the report.

The report found that Metro is listing some train operators as being “certified” even though they have not demonstrated they can handle certain dangerous situations, including when smoke fills train cars.

One of the required tasks for being certified as an operator is to demonstrate that they can use an “environmental system shutoff” system.

“Records show that this demonstration is not being implemented for all certifying train operators, as Metrorail’s own program requires,” the safety commission said.

Shutting down the environmental system protects passengers from smoke or other contaminants that would otherwise more quickly enter into the train when passing through or stopped in an area where those kinds of hazards exist.

It’s something that became a focus specifically after the 2015 deadly incident near L’Enfant Plaza, when a fire caused a train to fill with smoke, killing one passenger and sickening dozens.

The National Transportation Safety Board faulted Metro in part for a lack of smoke detectors in its tunnels, for ventilation fans that didn’t work properly and for not training its employees on how to use the fans.

According to Wednesday’s report, nearly a decade after the deadly smoke incident, Metro is still failing to make sure that its operators have the skills they need to respond to such an emergency.

“Further action is required to ensure that Metro follows its operator certification process and to ensure that Metro only uses personnel who have demonstrated their ability to operate trains safely and properly,” the safety commission said.

The commission ordered Metro to identify, within 30 days, employees who have not been properly certified, conduct proper certifications of those employees within 90 days and to develop an “action plan” to ensure that certification requirements are overlooked in the future.

Overall, Metro’s rail system requires more than 350 train operators each weekday, as well as other personnel who must be properly certified as train operators, such as rail supervisors, interlocking operators and car maintenance road mechanics.

In a statement, Metro said it has received the safety commission’s order.

“Today, we received an Order from the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission (WMSC) regarding train operator certification. At last week’s Board meeting, we proactively shared the steps we are taking to address these concerns while we continue to work with the WMSC.”

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Nick Iannelli

Nick Iannelli can be heard covering developing and breaking news stories on WTOP.

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