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Metro Review: More Fires, Distracted Employees, and No Leadership

A federal review in the wake of a fatal January incident is damning.
Metro Review: More Fires, Distracted Employees, and No Leadership
Photograph by Flickr user Brad Clinesmith.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority needs to make dozens of changes to its practices to ensure passenger and employee safety, says an exhaustive report by the Federal Transit Administration published Wednesday. The report was prompted by a January 12 incident at the L’Enfant Plaza in which smoke filled a departing Yellow Line train, killing one passenger and hospitalizing more than 80 others with respiratory problems.

Five months after the incident, which started after a bit of electric arcing—a plasma discharge by an insulator on the electrified third rail—the FTA says that not only does Metro need to undertake systemwide maintenance, it needs much better management at all levels. Beside the lack of a full-time general manager since Richard Sarles retired last year, Metro is in disarray at the ground level, especially its Rail Operations Control Center, the facility that manages train schedules, track and car maintenance, and emergency operations.

While previous reviews have instructed WMATA to use thorough checklists to govern maintenance and other work, the FTA found that many employees at the control center bristle at the recommendations. “This approach reflects the variety of Metrorail’s operations, the fluidity of daily activities and events, and the fact that most veteran [rail traffic controllers] prefer to run the Metrorail system largely based on their past experience and the information ‘in their heads’ as opposed to the consistent and dedicated use of checklists, transfer records, and AIM,” the report reads, referring to Metro’s data-management system.

The FTA review also found that employees at the control center are frequently distracted by radio stations playing in the background or their personal cell phones, which they are not supposed to use while on duty.

Metro is also far behind schedule in making the necessary upgrades to eliminate fires, which can be caused by electrical malfunctions, grime or debris on the tracks, or weather conditions, the report states. In fact, the frequency of track fires is growing. The system experienced 15 fires in 2013, 28 in 2014, and 12 in the first four months of 2015, putting it on pace to exceed last year’s total. The fatal January 12 incident also exposed communications faults between Metro operators and firefighter crews. One serious complication: WMATA often has no idea from where smoke or fire is emanating when they occur.

In reviewing this issue, FTA’s [Safety Management Inspection] team confirmed that while WMATA does have smoke detectors at specific locations, currently WMATA does not have the means to determine the exact location of a source of smoke in the tunnel network,” the report reads. “This lack of on-the-ground information regarding the exact location of smoke can complicate both the reporting of and response to these events.”

The full, 116-page report found 44 individual faults prompting 78 recommended actions, and is the most thourough chewing-out of the transit system since the National Transportation Saftey Board’s report on the 2009 Red Line crash that killed nine. The Washington area’s members of Congress, who got the FTA report yesterday, say Metro has its work cut out for it. But of the many little steps that WMATA has to take to recover from the fatal January incident, the biggest one is closing the leadership void.

“I have thousands of constituents riding the rails every single day and they expect and rely on Metro to be safe,” said Representative Barbara Comstock, a Virginia Republican. “Metro must make safety its top priority moving forward, and we would welcome some new leadership in doing so.”

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Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.