Engineers licensed in D.C. say select issues that the Federal Transit Administration reported on the Red Line this year are reasons for additional study by Metro, but do not threaten the safety of riders.
A Federal Transit Administration Metro Safety Oversight inspector reported finding track problems on the Red Line that do not meet Metro protocol, according to reports FTA posted July 27.
The federal inspector was verifying Metro had fixed some track problems, only to find new defects, according to a report dated March 30.
“Three-hundred feet of consecutive defective fasteners were observed” on a section of track between White Flint and Bethesda stations, the FTA Metro Safety Oversight inspector wrote.
FTA has written Metro’s standard, that a track with more than 120 feet between effective rail fasteners should be taken out of service and fixed, according to a 2016 report on track infrastructure.
The inspector in the March report wrote that Metro must replace the defective rail fasteners, and also tighten some loose bolts that were holding two parts of the rail together, right near a crossover. A crossover is where trains can switch from one track to another track, on which trains travel in the opposite direction.
Engineer Gus Ubaldi, who helped design the tracks for Metro in the 1970s, said the loose bolts and defective rail fasteners don’t harm the safety of riders and so the tracks are safe. Ubaldi, certified in several states plus D.C., wondered out loud if the track problems indicate issues in inspections or in the repair process, based on issues news media reported after the July 2016 train derailment.
“The stuff that’s there, it’s happening over time – somebody not finding it,” Ubaldi said about the long distance of defective rail fasteners. “Those kinds of things concern me.”
He said an employee, such as a track walker who routinely inspects the tracks, should have noticed a bolt was loose.
“FTA says a turnout [or crossover] has to be inspected on foot once a month, so at some point, somebody should be inspecting this and see loose bolts,” Ubaldi said, later adding, “They [the bolts] should not be getting loose over a month, and if they do, you have a different problem.”
In July 2016, a passenger train’s wheels came off the track in a crossover, near East Falls Church Station. FTA investigators said too many defective rail fasteners in a row and problems with the wooden crossties allowed the rails to spread apart, likely resulting in the train derailment.
“According to WMATA maintenance standards, anything over 120 inches requires that a “black” (out of service) condition be placed on the track,” FTA wrote in the 2016 report.
In another 2018 inspection report, dated April 16, the inspector said Metro would need to remove standing water found near various traction power substations, which convert current so it can power the trains.
Daryl Ebersole, an electrical engineer licensed in 34 states and D.C., said standing water near a traction power substation increases urgency of assessing a substation.
“I think it’s reasonable to say that anything that includes the words ‘standing water’ would raise the level of urgency to further assess and determine whether equipment has been damaged or needs to be turned off… but would not necessarily say it’s time to turn off or replace the equipment,” said Ebersole, employed by Robson Forensic.
Ebersole said substations often have a platform of concrete under them, elevating them a few inches above the floor, but not all substations do.
Ebersole said he did not know whether White Flint Station’s substation, mentioned in the FTA report, was located on top of a slab.
“If there is standing water and it is in the area of the substation or in the surrounding area of the substation, it potentially could mean… the water is getting into the equipment that is not ready to be in contact with water,” Ebersole said.
Metro Media Relations staff did not provide a response to requests for comment on the FTA inspection report before press time.