Metro Investigations (First in a series): Broken Promises - Bad Dreams
Metro managers still struggling with a broken unsafe rail system
While the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority claims Metrorail services is getting “Back 2 Good” a four month long investigation by The Sentinel newspapers shows the Metro system is still suffering from a laundry list of ills – including more than 100 safety deficiencies.
Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said in June SafeTrack – WMATA’s yearlong effort to rehabili- tate its services was finished and three years worth of repairs were done in just a year. But Federal Transit Administration officials say there is still a list of 109 safety deficiencies that are past due.
“The mindset at the supervisor level and down is they really don’t do nothing unless they're specially directed to do it,” a former management level WMATA employee said. “They could walk right over something that was broke and not fix it because they were not told to do it.”
In total the FTA has issued 268 Corrective Action Plans, or safety deficiencies WMATA agreed to fix. So far WMATA has corrected 71, while 16 are under review by the FTA and 72 are not due yet. Currently, 109 are still past due.
Some of these safety deficiencies, or incomplete Corrective Action Plans are past due by two years with due dates for corrections of the safety errors dating back to as late as October and December 2015.
One of the past due CAPs that was supposed to be fixed by July 2016, said debris blocks in Metro’s “emergency egress landings and areas of refuge.”
“WMATA must address the debris and equipment blocking the emergency access landings and area of rescue assistance identified by the TOC. WMATA also must ensure that contractors are briefed on proper safety protocol and that WMATA personnel periodically inspect contractor work on WMATA property,” according to the FTA’s description of the safety deficiency.
WMATA applied for closure request, meaning WMATA filed with the FTA saying that they corrected the safety issue, but WMATA’s request for closure for the removal of debris and equipment blocking emergency access landings was rejected by the FTA, meaning WMATA did not correct the issue to a standard suitable by federal transit officials.
Another CAP from the FTA, due in September 2016, said there are several fire extinguishers with expired inspection tags in the air condition and communications rooms at Fort Totten and Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro Stations. In 2009 one train crashed into a stopped train between Fort Totten and Takoma stations, killing nine people. According to the FTA, WMATA has not issued a request for closure.
“I couldn't tell why Metro hasn't gotten them done, they seem to be pretty darn easy,” said Gus Ubaldi, a rail transit engineer who used to work for WMATA in the 1970s.
Ubalidi reviewed WMATA’s past due safety deficiencies, but said it was hard to make sense of most of the CAPs given the vague descriptions by the FTA. Ubaldi did not comment on the expired inspection tags and debris blocking emergency egress areas but did say - in general – many of the problems should be simple fixes for WMATA.
The CAPs issued have due dates for correction set by WMATA, said Steve Kulm, a public affairs officer with the FTA. Kulm said a CAP issued by WMATA can be past due for a number of reasons including if WMATA did not submit a form for closure of the CAP, the FTA rejected WMATA’s closure of the CAP or WMATA submitted the CAP closure request past the WMATA set due date.
Kulm said there is a special FTA WMATA Oversight Team at the FTA that meets on a regular basis with WMATA officials to go over the CAPs.
“The FWSO team meets with WMATA staff on a bi-weekly basis to discuss CAP submittals,” Kulm said
“As a regular part of the agenda, any Past Due CAP is discussed until the FWSO team can verify WMATA has fully implemented it. The FTA keeps track of the CAPs on special webpage dedicated to WMATA.”
So far there are 109 past due CAPs when the table was last updated June 2, which Kulm said is the latest update.
When Wiedefeld arrived in November 2015, he took over a transit system that had long neglected maintenance according to federal and local transit officials. After a fire involving a cable occurred near McPherson Square Station March
14, 2016, Wiedefeld said Metro needed to make repairs so he shutdown the system for 24 hours March 16, 2016, so workers could inspect “jumper cables” that connect sections of the power source third rail.
“I knew obviously there were issues – I didn’t know the depth of them,” Wiedefeld said during the final SafeTrack project at Rockville Station this year.
Wiedefeld told reporters March 15 that Metro had inspected all the cables the previous year, but he was having them all inspected again. After the shutdown, he said Metro inspectors found three locations with conditions so severe that the nearby stations should not have been open for service.
The next month, when he met with the Montgomery County Council April 6, 2016, he said Metro inspectors were inspecting the entire rail system for safety and maintenance issues, and that he was getting ready in about six weeks to hatch a plan to catch Metro up on preventative maintenance. That plan turned out to be SafeTrack.