Posts about FTA
In December, the Federal Transit Administration gave WMATA a list of 217 issues it needs to fix in order to be a truly safe system. A month and a half later, the agency is on the right track, but it will take years to prove that it has a healthy safety culture day in and day out.
FTA's safety oversight inspections monitor #WMATA's implementation of corrective actions to improve Metrorail safety. FTA safety oversight staff observe WMATA track inspection on Green Line at Waterfront Station. Image from the FTA.
Examples of issues the FTA highlighted include a number of trains that ran red "stop" signals and train operators saying they consistently felt pressure to stay on-time when running trains. WMATA's interim chief safety officer Lou Brown said that the agency is "very serious" and "very dedicated" to improving the system's safety, which would mean mitigating or resolving the issues the FTA noted.
The full list, which is lengthy, stems from the FTA's large inspection of WMATA early in 2015, some NTSB recommendations for WMATA that are still open, and the Tri-State Oversight Committee (TOC). In fact, most come from the TOC, but that agency did not have powers to actually make WMATA do anything; as many of them are still legitimate issues, the FTA combined them in with their findings.
Until a new agency is set up to take over for the TOC the FTA will be in charge of overseeing WMATA.
I've summarized some of the more interesting findings and explained why they are worth caring about below:
- The group responsible for supporting the Automatic Train Control (ATC) system that keeps trains safely separated is keeping track of inventory it no longer uses but not whether tools are properly calibrated.
- Sheets that Metro track inspectors use when looking at interlockings (that's where two sets of track converge) have checkboxes already filled in before the inspector has even checked the track.
- The agency is not following it's own safety and security certification process as required. Metro's safety office has been criticized by the Board of Directors for not being very involved in enforcing safety procedures.
- Metro allowed personnel without proper qualifications to operate rail equipment. In the case of one accident, the work unit operator had been involved in a previous accident and shouldn't have been in charge.
- At several locations, hazardous materials that could react if the came into contact with each other were not stored separately.
- There is no formal procedure for testing and replacing emergency equipment used in real emergencies or practice drills.
- The communications group in charge of maintaining Metro's radio systems is required to do more maintenance work than they have time for, and many communications technicians haven't received classroom training on how to use the current digital radio system.
- Between Jan 1, 2012 and Nov 2, 2015, train operators ran past 47 red signals. There were more signal overruns in 2015 than in either of the two prior years.
- Metro is still running 1000-series rail cars; the NTSB has told them to replace the 1000-series rail cars with safer equipment.
- The Rail Operations Control Center where trains are dispatched and routed is noisy and distracting, and the computer system doesn't have enough checks to prevent potential human errors.
- The Metro radio system still works poorly in some areas (although others have improved). Train operators, police, and emergency responders can't communicate with each other when the radio system doesn't work.
- The safety department doesn't always review passenger complains that train intercoms don't work. The intercoms, located at either end of each car, allow Metro riders to call the train operator in order communicate with them in an emergency.
Late Friday evening, the US Secretary of Transportation announced an immediate federal takeover of WMATA safety oversight.
Boss pointing image from Shutterstock.
The takeover gives federal officials authority to inspect Metro at will, and to order Metro employees to address safety problems. WMATA will still manage normal train operations.
Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that Congress transfer oversight of WMATA from the Tri-State Oversight Committee (TOC) to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).
However, the FRA typically manages freight railroads, long distance trains, and commuter rail (like MARC and VRE), and has no experience with a transit agency like WMATA. US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx worried giving oversight to FRA would be more disruptive than a direct takeover by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), which already has the statutory authority for a safety takeover.
With Foxx's blessing, that's what will happen. Effective immediately, the FTA is in charge of Metro safety.
The move is unprecedented. FTA has never taken over the safety oversight role from a local State Safety Oversight Agency (SSOA), like the TOC. But given Metro's repeated lapses, and the inability of the TOC to enforce change, USDOT believes this is the best alternative.
Details are still scarce. But the FTA will have authority to enforce corrective actions. This should mean that WMATA won't be able to ignore safety directives, as they do with the TOC.
This move is only temporary. The FTA will relinquish control when DC, Maryland, and Virginia create a new SSOA which actually has teeth and can effectively enforce safety changes. Since the FTA has never played this role before, it is unclear if this oversight will be a success.
Beginning with the 2009 train crash near Fort Totten that killed nine people, Metro has suffered several major safety lapses, including a smoke incident in January that killed another passenger.
This takeover is the sort of shake up of WMATA management that could lead to real change in the organization's culture, and hopefully improve WMATA safety. On the other hand, it could also further impede the agency from making nimble changes that could benefit riders. Only the future will tell.
The Federal Transit Administration came down hard on WMATA today, deeming the agency deficient in both how it manages itself on the whole and, more specifically, how it operates its trains and buses. As a result, WMATA will need to make some serious changes, and fast.
System-wide, FTA inspectors cited 54 overall safety violations: 44 for Metrorail and 10 for Metrobus. The deficiencies come despite efforts to step up the agency-wide commitment to safety that followed the fatal 2009 Red Line crash at Fort Totten.
Chief among the problem areas is that Metrorail's Rail Operations Control Center is both understaffed and doing a poor job of immediately fixing safety hazards as well as managing routine maintenance projects.
Other issues include:
- The Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC) is understaffed.
- Rail Traffic Controllers have not been regularly recertified/retrained as required.
- The ROCC has a high level of noise and distraction.
- Radio discipline is poor.
- ROCC lacks formal procedures, manuals, and checklists.
- Rail Traffic Controllers use their cell phones while on duty.
- WMATA faces challenges in hiring and training qualified Controllers.
- Rail Traffic Controller training is inadequate.
- Accident investigations do not look at the ROCC's actions, just those of the train operator.
- Radio coverage remains poor in some areas.
- There is not enough time for maintenance during overnight hours.
- WMATA has reduced trackwork windows to cut back on customer dissatisfaction.
- The lack of trackwork time is contributing to a backlog of maintenance.
- Track worker protection training is not occurring as required.
- WMATA doesn't have a strategy for emergency response training.
- Rules compliance checks are not performed often enough or with regularity as required.
- Not all issues with the ATC (signal) system are being communicated to maintenance.
- The ATC department is understaffed.
- Critical parts are not always kept in stock.
- Not enough is being done to reduce fire/smoke issues in tunnels.
As a result of the findings the FTA is issuing a safety directive to WMATA that outlines how to fix each violation and requests updates to the 2016 budget to account for funding the necessary changes.
Also, in line with a recommendation from the National Transportation Safety Board that followed January's Yellow Line tragedy, State Safety Oversight Agencies will inspect Metro's tunnel ventilation systems, and the FTA will give WMATA further instruction based on the findings.
WMATA has 30 days to respond to the report with additional information. During this time, WMATA may suggest equivalent, alternative actions. Within 31 to 90 days of the report, WMATA must submit a plan for taking action.
Starting immediately, WMATA and FTA leaders will meet monthly until the FTA determines the meetings are no longer necessary or can be less frequent.
The Federal Transit Administration has just issued a Record of Decision for the Purple Line, basically approving the 16-mile light rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton. It's one of the last pieces needed to build the line, which is scheduled to break ground next year and open in 2020.
Maryland Transit Administration officials made the announcement this morning during a Montgomery County Planning Board meeting about the Purple Line, which Purple Line NOW! and BethesdaNow subsequently tweeted.
The FTA will make a formal announcement next week. The agency's decision means Maryland can start purchasing right-of-way to build the $2.37 billion Purple Line, and makes it eligible for federal funding. President Obama recently included it in his 2015 budget, which Congress will have to approve later this year.
With state funding in place and an ongoing search for a private partner in the works, nearly all of the money needed has been secured. As a sign of how likely the Purple Line is to get built, the Planning Board is meeting today to make detailed recommendations about how it should interact with surrounding neighborhoods, like what materials to use for retaining walls.
Meanwhile, Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney has a column today urging the affluent Town of Chevy Chase, which has been fighting the project for years and recently hired a congressman's brother to lobby on their behalf, to lay down their arms and use their money to make the project better instead.
"Some people have more money than good judgment," he wrote. "The town should end its obstruction of a worthy project. Burning money is unwise even if you have it to spare."
Yesterday, the Purple Line took a big step forward when the federal government recommended giving it a $100 million grant for next year and providing additional funding in the coming years. Now, all it needs is approval from Congress.
President Obama included the $2.2 billion, 16-mile light rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton in his 2015 budget. It's one of 7 transit projects the Federal Transit Administration recommended for a "New Starts" grant, including the Baltimore Red Line, an extension of LA's Purple Line, Boston's Green Line extension, the Columbia River Crossing in Portland, and commuter rail in Orlando and Fort Worth.
The agency also recommended Congress give the Purple Line a "full funding grant agreement" committing it to help pay for construction. Maryland hopes the federal government will provide $900 million, though it's unclear what the final amount will be.
The state has already agreed to put in up to $900 million for the project. Montgomery and Prince George's counties will give $220 million total, while the state is looking for a private partner to build and operate the line and pitch in additional funds.
The Purple Line has been discussed in some form since 1986. If everything goes right, it could start construction in 2015 and open in 2020. But getting here hasn't been easy.
From the beginning, it faced vehement opposition from the exclusive Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase, because the line would follow the Capital Crescent Trail, a former freight rail line that bisected its golf course. Meanwhile, the University of Maryland didn't want it passing through the heart of campus, and even hired former Montgomery County executive Doug Duncan (now running for a fourth term) to oppose it.
Maryland was able to find a workable solution for both parties, and the Purple Line now enjoys the support of both county executives, elected officials in both counties, and hundreds of civic, environmental, business, and advocacy groups.
But there are still a few challenges remaining. One is that Congress actually has to approve President Obama's budget and decide how much the "full funding grant agreement" for the Purple Line would be. The other is the Town of Chevy Chase, which continues to oppose the project because of its impacts on the trail. The town recently hired a lobbyist who happens to be the brother of the House transportation committee chair to make the case against the line.
Meanwhile, other residents may sue the government because they feel not enough research has been done about the Purple Line's impacts on a small, shrimp-like creature that's listed as an endangered species but is found several miles away. These things may add additional delay to the Purple Line, but it's unclear whether they're enough to actually halt the project.
In any case, yesterday was a great day for the Purple Line. When I attended my first Purple Line meeting in 2003, as a junior in high school, I assumed that I'd be riding it by now. Hopefully, 28 years after the project was first announced, we won't have to wait much longer.
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