Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Metro Safety


Here's how WMATA spent money over the last 5 years

WMATA recently put out a video summarizing its capital spending—the $3.7 billion it spent on actual materials like train tracks and buses—from 2011-2015. Check it out:

Andrew Off, Metro's assistant general manager for track infrastructure, gave a quick rundown of some of the major things his agency did with the money, which totaled about $5 billion and came from local jurisdictions and the federal government. That included:

  • Repairing the platforms at nine Red Line stations
  • Installing Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant platform tiles at 14 stations
  • Refurbish/repair 13 power substations used to move trains
  • Repair 148 escalators, and replace 27 others
  • Purchase and start delivery of 748 7000-series rail cars
  • Replace 337,234 feet of rail used by trains (out of 2,985,698 feet total)
  • 60 minor and 60 major station rehabs to provide better lighting, repairing platforms, etc.
  • Upgrade track equipment and parts as per NTSB recommendations
In a write-up presented to the Board of Directors in January, WMATA also noted some issues with how the capital improvement program was handled.

One of the issues noted was "insufficient management controls"—in other words, making sure WMATA had enough information to start a project with so it would be able to know if it stayed on schedule, completed everything that was required of it, and stayed on time and budget.

Because of the issues encountered during the five years of the program, about 26% went unused.

The agency now hopes to get a one-year extension of the 2011-2015 program funded through next June. The longer, multi-year program to follow would include Loudoun County in Virginia as well due to the new Silver Line stations. Look for public hearings about the 2016-2022 capital improvement program later in February.


Metro will shut down Friday night. Most buses won't even run Friday.

As the region prepares for tomorrow's snowstorm, major transportation modes are already announcing they'll be fully shut down through Sunday. Metro is even stopping most of its buses as early as Friday morning.

Image by Dan Malouff.

Earlier this afternoon, WMATA announced plans to close Metrorail Friday at 11 pm through Sunday night. Metrobus will start Friday on a severe snow plan, which means very few routes run, and then close it entirely through Sunday.

Local bus system around the region have announced various closures. MARC has announced it will curtail service Friday, and suspend it at least through Saturday. As of when we published this post, VRE has not yet announced its plans.

In addition to these public transit closures, Car2Go informed its Arlington and DC members this afternoon that it will also suspend service starting at 9pm tonight, indefinitely through the storm.

All of which is to say, good luck getting around for the next few days if you don't own a car.

Is this wise, or an overreaction?

"This is not a storm that anyone should take lightly, and I would urge all residents to plan to get to a safe place before the storm arrives Friday afternoon," said WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld at this afternoon's announcement.

"The actions we are taking today are all in the interest of our customers' and employees' safety, and will help us return to service once the storm passes and the snow is cleared."

These closures will almost certainly leave a significant number of area residents with severely limited transportation options during the storm. Having the system closed will discourage unnecessary travel. But it will also make necessary travel happen on other modes, which may expose fewer people to more risk. For the subset of car-free people who work critical services such as hospitals, it will mean long and harrowing cab rides, possibly with very expensive fares.

Some workplaces will still be open Friday morning, and many residents who use the bus will have no way to get to them. Metro's press release says this "helps to ensure that customers and employees are not stranded once the storm begins," but many people don't have that choice or were already planning to use the bus and get home before the snow.

While most area residents who use Metro no doubt agree it should operate as much service as is possible during the storm, Metro does face constraints and deserves credit for recognizing them.

"Given the amount of snow forecast," points out contributor Matt Johnson, "Metro will need to park its trains underground to avoid having them stranded in rail yards or damaged by the snow. Historically, Metro moves as many railcars as possible from all over the system and parks them in the tunnels between Glenmont and Forest Glen. This is why service on that section is not covered in the snow plan. With the forecast of this magnitude, they may be parking railcars in other areas.

"This weekend's storm is forecast to be in the top five winter storms in recorded history for DC. 'Severe' snow plan bus routes will not be able to operate in this storm."

Not that driving will be much better.

Are these reactions extreme? How will these closures impact your weekend? Tell us in the comments.


Computer-driven trains are gradually coming back to Metro, but it'll still take a while

Metro was originally built for computers to drive the trains, but humans have been doing it since 2009. The feature is back on for some Red Line trains. Restoring it to all trains on all lines will give riders a smoother ride and more frequent trains, but there's still some work to be done.

Automatic Train Operation: sort of like Otto, but for trains. Photo by Bowman! on Flickr.

We last wrote about Automatic Train Control about six months ago. Automatic Train Control, or ATC for short, keeps trains properly spaced, keeps them from going too fast, and can assist train operators by driving a train between stations automatically.

ATC consists of three subsystems; one of them, Automatic Train Operation (ATO), is the piece that actually automates the driving.

Failures in ATC contributed to the 2009 Fort Totten crash, so Metro disabled it and drivers have been operating the trains manually since. Recently, Metro restored ATO on the Red Line, but only on eight-car trains, which make up to around half the trains on the Red Line.

ATO has benefits for both Metro and riders. An automatic train may feel like it handles smoother, accelerates steadily, and decelerates without the jerky movements we're used to on a lot of trains. This steady and even train movement also can help the trains adhere better to the schedule and increase on-time performance, which has been lacking recently for various reasons.

Extrapolating further, ATO can help trains more easily fit through chokepoints like Rosslyn since automatic driving is more a "known quantity" and timing differs less than from operator to operator. This can all help Metro and passengers by providing more reliable service.

WMATA Automatic Train Control WEE-Z Bond. Photo by Matt Johnson.

Most eight-car trains still aren't using ATO

Originally, it appeared that all Red Line 8-car trains would use ATO, but it turns out that this will happen "not any time soon," according to WMATA spokesperson Dan Stessel. Metro doesn't want its trains running with ATO around work areas, and a lot is happening in the middle of the day and the evenings. At these times, therefore, the trains are still in manual mode.

Until the amount of track and system work diminishes and trains aren't single-tracking around work zones as often, trains should be running in automatic operation ("mode 1") only during peak service (5-9:30 am or 3-7 pm) on the Red Line.

Roger Bowles monitored the Red Line over three days in mid-October. He observed 33 8-car trains, but only seven (21%) were in automatic mode. One of these seven was even converted to manual mode after a supervisor had the train operator manually align the train with the front of the platform even though it was only a few feet off and all doors were on the platform.

Unfortunately, this means that the Red Line train that you may be riding could be just as jerky and manually-controlled as the others you've ridden since 2009.

What makes up the Automatic Train Control system. Image by WMATA.

ATO may return to all lines ahead of schedule

As part of the safety fixes following the 2009 crash, WMATA is replacing all 1,750 track circuits in the system that link together at 59 control rooms. These circuits keep trains safely separated and relay information between the train and Metro's central rail control center.

Metro replaced the Red Line circuits first, and because it doesn't share track with any of the other lines, it was able to get ATO back. Metro is still replacing the ones on other lines; 150 modules and 187 bonds were replaced just this year.

WMATA has said publicly that ATO should be back on the Silver, Blue, Orange, Yellow, and Green lines sometime in late 2017. More recently, spokesperson Sherri Ly said the agency is hoping to have it ready for use "by 2017, or possibly sooner," which could be up to a year earlier.

The timing will depend on how fast Metro completes the other safety-critical fixes recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board or mandated by the Federal Transit Administration, so no date is set in stone.

Manual train operation will never go away completely

Automatic train operation is better for both passengers and WMATA, but it will never fully replace manual driving. In case ATO ever happens to break down (as it has), train operators need to know how to drive their trains without it.

Standard practice before the crash was for the first train every morning to use manual mode. That way, train operators could stay skilled in manually driving the train before switching over for the rest of the shift. Once ATO resumes for the entire system, Metro would likely restart this or a similar practice.

This, like many major WMATA projects, can benefit from more communication

With initiatives like Amplify and the webpage tracking the Stadium Armory power restoration project, WMATA has made some laudable efforts to better communicate with passengers and the public. However, there are still opportunities for improvement. There has not been much specific information about the weekend or weeknight rebuilding projects, for example.

With ATO, the agency said it would be turned on for Red Line eight-car trains, but did not communicate the types of restrictions that would limit the system's use. I hope Metro can regularly update riders on the status of these large projects, and look forward to riding on an automatically-driven train on my native Orange Line again!


Anthony Foxx might destroy Metro in order to save it

Riders have been deserting Metro. If the agency ran even fewer trains, the trains were slower, and they didn't run at night or on the weekends at all, would that make people start riding again? No? But that might be exactly what US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx will force upon Metro if he's serious in his recent rhetoric.

Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Metro has severe problems with operations, with finances, with communication, and with safety. The agency needs to improve in all of those areas, all at the same time. But in a recent op-ed, Foxx, whose agency just took over safety oversight, says the agency may only work on safety, seemingly to the exclusion of all else.

We all want Metro to be safe, and the agency has earned our anger at its recent behavior. However, it's not actually unsafe today, and if the federal government insists it drop everything to work on safety without also working on the immediate and long-term problems with the quality of the service, we may soon find ourselves with a much less useful transit system and an overall transportation network that is less safe rather than more.

Foxx takes charge

Foxx's agency recently took over Metro safety oversight through the Federal Transit Administration, which regulates US transit systems. Metro is the first and only transit system where FTA is directly monitoring safety.

This situation arose because the Tri-State Oversight Committee, the joint entity between DC, Maryland, and Virginia which was supposed to be monitoring safety, dropped the ball multiple times over the past few years. The National Transportation Safety Board suggested giving oversight to the Federal Railroad Admnistration, which monitors safety on commuter and freight railroads, but Foxx opted to give it to the FTA instead.

This weekend, he published an op-ed explaining just what he expects of Metro. And it amounts to insisting Metro not do a single thing except work on safety until FTA is 100% satisfied.

Here are a few quotes:

  • "The FTA ... will not allow federal dollars to go to Metro for any activity other than safety improvements."
  • "We may also require periodic closures of some Metro facilities to ensure safety measures are implemented."
  • "There will be no new projects until Metro completes its punch list."
  • "Metro can forget any new rail-expansion projects until it meets our safety standards."
You might say, what's wrong with that? Everyone agrees safety is the most important priority—including the WMATA Board. But there's a huge difference between something being top priority and being the only priority.

How much will Foxx hamstring Metro?

Some of Foxx's quotes sound frightening. FTA might force Metro to shut down some facilities? When? For how long?

If FTA just pushes Metro to do a longer closure here and there to get more repairs done, well, maybe that's reasonable (though both Metro and FTA should be open with the public about the tradeoffs inherent in such decisions rather than just making a choice behind closed doors).

What's more scary is the idea that FTA might force Metro to run fewer trains, or trains farther apart, or make the trains slower, for months, years, or even permanently. After all, it's surely safer if all of the trains run at no more than 30 mph, or are always at least 5 minutes apart, for instance.

Already, riders at Stadium-Armory are suffering with most trains skipping their stop thanks to the transformer fire. Blue Line riders have suffered from scarce trains for years now. Trains are running slowly in parts of the system. Metro is not putting as many trains out as its own service plans call for. Will the FTA impose more of this on top?

I've contacted FTA to ask for more information, and will follow up if they provide more details.

Will FTA care about service at all?

Foxx doesn't sound like he's completely ignorant about how important service is. He even mentions it a few times:

  • "While the FTA will oversee Metro's safety activities, Metro must step up maintenance and operations, improve service and earn back the confidence of riders and workers."
  • "Metro and state and local officials must pull together and do what is necessary to make Metro a safe, reliable and desirable option for travelers."
These sentences are absolutely correct. But they contradict his statements elsewhere that he "will not allow federal dollars to go to Metro for any activity other than safety improvements." Making Metro reliable and desirable, as well as safe, will require some dollars, too. So will stepping up operations, improving service, and earning back confidence.

Those shouldn't come at the expense of safety—and sometimes in the past, they have—but need to happen concurrently.

The "Federal Less Transit Administration"?

There's particular reason to worry because the FTA has not behaved in the past like an organization that wants to help transit agencies. Instead, it's like a sword of Damocles hanging over each transit agency, ready to fall if the agency missteps.

State transportation officials who weren't willing to speak publicly (for fear of retaliation from FTA) have told me that at industry events, FTA representatives generally lecture transit agencies on their compliance responsibilities but don't try to work collaboratively to make the bureaucracy work well for everyone. FTA has been far less flexible than the Federal Highway Administration on things like putting tracks on bridges.

Already, FTA has one hand around Metro's throat: It's been withholding federal funds until after Metro spends money on repairs, only reimbursing WMATA after the fact and only if officials fill out all of the paperwork perfectly. It had a legitimate reason to start this penalty: WMATA had lax controls that led to procurement missteps and bad contracts. That's been fixed now, though, yet Metro continues to labor under deep restrictions on getting the money it needs.

This is the transit equivalent of the old saying, "The beatings will continue until morale improves."

FTA regularly behaves as though there's no problem with transit agencies running very little transit, yet spending huge dollars on expensive bureaucratic overhead. I'm sure not everyone at FTA feels this way, but the ultimate stance of the agency often ends up being that it doesn't matter if the transit gets run, only if every comma is in place on the forms.

Foxx seems to be saying he'll stand firmly behind FTA's safety people if they take the same attitude as the rest of the agency. If there's a way to improve safety by 0.000001% but it causes thousands of hours of rider delays, well, safety is number one.

Metro isn't dangerous

If riding Metro actually posed a serious risk of injury, then I'd be the first to say shut it down until it's safe. But it's pretty darn safe now.

It's terrible that a woman died of smoke inhalation at L'Enfant Plaza in January, and even more unforgivable that Metro had been keeping quiet about the fact that radios didn't work. WMATA needs to not only fix the problems that led to this, but also be far more proactive about identifying, disclosing, and fixing safety risks.

Still, you have to put this in a bit of perspective. Just this weekend, people driving killed one person walking and two people biking. Crashes that kill drivers on high-speed roads are a sadly common feature in the news.

If platforms get more crowded, that will harm safety too, perhaps far more than whatever a long-term shutdown or slowdown will fix. Same if people switch to driving, where they might imperil not only themselves but others. Shutting down night Metro service might help with repairs but also increase drunk driving, for instance.

Anthony Foxx has been a strong proponent of road safety, no doubt, and deserves credit for it. Still, none of us expects him to write that "America can forget any new road-expansion projects until the roads meet our safety standards."

Even if he wanted to say that, Congress wouldn't allow it. And not just Republicans; Senator Barbara Mikulski has been the first to be outraged beyond belief at any safety lapse at Metro but quiet on both Metro's service lapses and road safety. Foxx is just hearing the message loud and clear.

Will Foxx and FTA make Metro better or worse?

Of course Metro needs to do better on safety. Its lapses have been intolerable. The current oversight scheme has failed to actually provide oversight. DC, Maryland, and Virginia transportation heads failed to ensure the oversight officials in their employ had the tools to properly monitor safety.

The Federal Transit Administration could be a positive force here or a negative one. It could watch for the real safety risks and insist Metro address them while also recognizing there has to be some balance of prioritizing service, safety, and other imperatives.

Or, it could force Metro to sacrifice its service until ten years from now we're left with something no better than a commuter rail system, lines useful at rush hours and nearly useless at any other time, trains that crawl along most of the way, and an agency continually unable to communicate or set long-term plans.

We'd get increasingly-congested roads as more people abandon Metro and more net deaths, but nobody would blame FTA or Anthony Foxx. I'd like to hope that people at USDOT and FTA recognize this issue, but that will require Foxx sending a different message to people inside the agency from his bellicose posture in this weekend's article.


The feds are taking over WMATA safety, which is unprecedented

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.


NTSB recommends the federal government take over safety oversight of Metro

The National Transportation Safety Board has "urgently" recommended that the Federal Railroad Administration take over safety oversight for WMATA.

Photo by Cliff on Flickr.

FRA already regulates safety for intercity rail, including freight and passenger rail like Amtrak, and commuter rail systems like MARC and VRE. It doesn't oversee most urban transit systems, except the PATH train between New York and New Jersey.

Since WMATA spans DC, Maryland, and Virginia, the current oversight body is the Tri-State Oversight Committee (TOC), a team of officials from the three jurisdictions' departments of transportation who oversee safety.

The current system has failed

The TOC has often not been successful. After the Fort Totten crash, it turned out WMATA had refused to let them access the tracks. But the group could only write more and more exasperated letters to the same people at Metro and apparently had no way to escalate the issue outside the agency. Some higher-ups at the DOTs didn't even know that TOC members reported to their organizations.

There were efforts to beef up the TOC since 2009-2010, but the NTSB has concluded they have not been successful.

The FRA may have downsides as well

While there's a lot of reason to support this move, it's also important to have some caution as well. There are possible drawbacks to federal control of these systems.

The FRA, for its part, has come under criticism in the past for the way it regulates safety. On intercity railroads, for instance, FRA pushed for heavier trains which can survive crashes instead of trains that can stop more quickly to avoid crashes. This forced US rail vehicles to be heavier than European counterparts, making it more expensive to buy them. Problems with cracking in Acela trains a decade ago were blamed, at least in part, on the extra weight because of this rule.

PATH officials have blamed FRA regulations for high operational costs. For example, the FRA required PATH to run more tests, more often, including tests on things not strongly connected to safety such as air conditioning.

If the FRA does take over, it could ensure safety oversight is stronger, which is absolutely necessary. It's also possible it might raise costs, and the region must be vigilant to ensure that FRA never throws the baby out with the bathwater by hamstringing Metro in some way that degrades service.


WMATA admits there's a problem with the culture

The WMATA Board of Directors has finally agreed publicly that the agency needs to reform its internal culture. This is an argument riders and advocates have been making for a long time, and it's good to see the board reach the same conclusion.

The board decided to hire a "restructuring specialist" to help turn WMATA around, the Washington Post reported.

It's long been clear to many that internal communication at Metro is a big problem. Many middle managers and others bury potential problems rather than discussing them openly with senior managers, and top management has not really pushed to fix this culture.

The revelation that a Track Geometry Vehicle operator mistakenly deleted a warning about problems near the Smithsonian station, problems that later derailed a train, made this issue too large to ignore, even for some board members who believed, or at least claimed, that the agency is running well.

This fiasco also cracked the attitude, which ran from many board members to senior management and down, that the agency should only publicly speak about good news and not admit to issues that might be minor now but could turn into larger ones down the line.

For example, Metro knew the Silver Line would demand more railcars, but railcar maintenance hasn't been able to keep cars in service as much as forecast. Coupled with delays in the 7000 series arriving partly because of the Japan earthquake, the agency has faced a railcar crunch. But we've only found out about this problem in bits and pieces, from riders collecting data manually and oblique mentions in Metro's scorecard.

DDOT Director Leif Dormsjo, who has not been shy about calling openly for reform, pushed for a change. Dormsjo said he thinks transparency is part of the solution to the organizational culture problems.

"I think we have an organization that needs to improve it's health, and sunlight is the best disinfectant," he said. "We need to continue to be more transparent and forthcoming, even if it's troubling news." He asked managers to identify more information the could release to the public on an ongoing basis.

Dormsjo has also added some sunlight of his own by being forthright about the problems he sees. On the safety office, for instance, he said, "I am very concerned that Mr. Dougherty's office is a paper tiger in this organization." The safety office was not involved in reviewing standard operating procedures, such as for the Track Geometry Vehicle. Flaws in the procedure was part of the reason the flaw escaped attention.

In the past, some board members have suggested WMATA is better off if they keep strong opinions to themselves lest they scare off a good top candidate. But keeping problems "inside the family" just makes the public trust the organization less when problems grow and become visible.

It's sad that it took a derailment to make this happen, but Dormsjo's philosophy of openness, and the arguments that the organization really needs internal cultural reform, seem finally to be winning out.

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