Watchdog report: Metro skipping some steps while inspecting railcars

An independent agency that oversees safety on Metro released an audit Tuesday that found the D.C. transit system has skipped some safety checks, including railcar inspections and precautions to protect personnel.

The Washington Metrorail Safety Commission conducted interviews, site visits and data reviews since December 2023 for the audit. Metro has 30 days to make plans that respond to the report’s findings and recommendations.

The report paints a picture of at times dysfunctional worksite operations, concluding Metro has been inconsistent in meeting its own procedural requirements for maintaining safety for both riders and its employees.

1 in 5 daily inspections don’t follow procedures

The Commission said Metro managers were aware that up to 1 out of 5 daily inspections were not being completed in accordance with safety procedures. Mechanics did the steps out of order, or at times skipped steps, the report stated. Sometimes, steps that were not complete were checked off as if they were carried out.

Those inspections are meant to ensure railcars are safe for passengers, according to the report.

The watchdog agency also reported issues with maintenance not being carried through properly. For example, railcars were put into service with switches that weren’t properly secured.

Equipment problems

The report said Metro is not keeping a consistent log of hazards with railcars and personnel.

At times, railcars that needed repairs or that failed tests were released into service. Among those instances listed in the report was one railcar that was put as a lead car — at the front of the train as opposed to the middle — after failing a test on its automatic train protection coils, which collect speed commands from Metrorail’s wayside system.

In another case, two railcars that had open work orders stating their automatic doors were having issues were put into service. The problem wasn’t addressed but the work order was closed, the report stated.

Metro is not consistently following its procedures to keep up with railcars with deferred work orders, which has led to some railcars being put back into service prematurely before work is done, the report found.

In one incident, passengers were offloaded off a train that was having a propulsion problem. Personnel didn’t document the issue immediately and the train reached the end of the line before a work order was opened to keep the train out of service, according to the report.

Metro has a system in place to keep track of what equipment is due for calibration, but items have gone years past their due date, including those used to inspect and maintain railcar safety, according to the Commission.

What’s being done to protect workers?

Precautions to maintain Metro workers’ safety were not always put in place, including those to prevent falls, burns or head injuries.

The agency saw workers who weren’t wearing proper protective gear, high-voltage cables laid in the shop that could be tripped over and warning lights that were meant to signal danger out of view from personnel.

Those hazards were not always listed on inspection forms and sometimes they were misclassified as being of a higher or lower importance than actual reality — which delayed the most significant problems from being addressed.

Workers weren’t warned when cranes were in use, and they weren’t wearing hard hats to protect against objects that may fall, the Commission reported.

At times, daily inspections were completed without the proper lights to flag that a train can’t be moved.

Some personnel were working off outdated versions of safety procedures, but the report said the personnel weren’t following through with either the old or updated version of the procedures.

Car maintenance workers completed work that was supposed to require more people because they reported feeling rushed due to inadequate staffing. Though railcars have been added, staffing has decreased overtime, according to workers.

Personnel who do work such as metal grinding, welding and soldering are supposed to receive training under Metro’s hot works program — but some workers who do that work on a regular basis have not received safety training.

Hazardous materials were seen on work sites too, including greasy floors and gas that workers said was improperly stored.

Metro’s next steps

The safety watchdog made three recommendations to Metro to address the report’s findings:

  1. “Metrorail may develop and implement a process to ensure railcar-related items that decay over time are identified and that expired items are discarded.”
  2. Metrorail may establish a process to proactively provide supervisors and other necessary management personnel with training information for personnel prior to the start of that individual’s first shift under that supervisor and management.
  3. Metrorail should update its railcar maintenance staffing assessment to account for current facilities, railcars, maintenance requirements and other operational changes.”

Metro has 30 days from the time the report was released to create collective action plans that address the report. Those plans have to remedy the issues outlined in the audit and each one will require WMSC’s approval before it’s implemented.

The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 responding to the audit on a statement posted on X, highlighting how “WMATA has a habit of prioritizing system speed over safety.”

“This audit illustrates a long-lasting and unfortunate problem within WMATA regarding system-wide safety issues,” the statement read. “The Union calls on WMSC to redouble their oversight efforts to ensure that WMATA is safe for all.”

The calls for safety come as Metro ridership is on the rise under General Manager and CEO Randy Clarke. Clarke has led the agency since July 2022.

WTOP has reached out to Metro for comment.

The full audit is available online.

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Jessica Kronzer

Jessica Kronzer graduated from James Madison University in May 2021 after studying media and politics. She enjoys covering politics, advocacy and compelling human-interest stories.

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