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Transit


Here's what Metro's work crews found during the closure

During Wednesday's system closure, Metro's work crews found at least 26 power cables and connectors that required immediate repair. This makes you wonder: What will it take to uncover similar issues?


Image of a third rail jumper cable with frayed outer metal insulation. Photo from WMATA.

The Metrorail system shut down for the whole day Wednesday so that track crews could inspect and repair all 600 train power cables. General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said the system was divvied up into 22 sections and crews went to work checking them all, repairing the ones which were found to be in unacceptable condition.

By the agency's 6 pm press conference on Wednesday, Metro had inspected 80 percent of the cables and found that 26 required repairs. It had fixed 18, and it handled the rest overnight, before today's opening.

"Let me tell you, the shut down today was necessary" said Wiedefeld. While there weren't any cables in immediate danger of causing a fire, Wiedefeld said enough were in a "hazardous condition that we cannot accept" to justify stopping all trains for a day, a very rare move in Metro's 39-year history.


Third rail power jumper cable "boots." The third rail is under the white cover that follows next to the track. Image from WMATA.

Here's the issue

The power cables that were called into question after the fire on Monday are part of the third rail system, which powers trains so they can move down the track. The "jumpers" as they're called are used to bridge gaps in the third rail, like when the third rail has to move from one side of the track to the other. The jumper cables allow the third rail to be on whichever side of the track it needs to be on to create a continuous supply of power for the trains passing on the track.

According to Wiedefeld and Board Chairman Jack Evans, the Monday fire was similar to the one at L'Enfant Plaza in January of 2015. At L'Enfant, a defective power cable missing some of its insulation, which would prevent moisture and dirt from getting into the cable, made contact with another piece of metal, like the tunnel wall. This caused sparking which led to fire and smoke, and in essence is a common form of a power "short"—where the path of the electrons deviates from where you want them to go—just on a larger scale and with more dire consequences.

After the L'Enfant fire and death of a passenger, WMATA re-inspected all of these power cables. WMATA replaced 125 cables, and inspections were set up for the cables to be inspected yearly.

Wiedefeld didn't say if any of the 26 cables found Wednesday had been replaced last year, so we don't know if the cables are just one year old and failed recently, or if the issues were missed during routine inspections. The power system is one of several in Metrorail that, if it isn't working nearly perfectly, could harm employees, emergency personnel, or passengers.

The NTSB recommended WMATA replace all faulty cables last year

The NTSB issued a press release and recommendation to WMATA saying that issues with some of the power connections required "immediate action." The agency found that some jumper cable boots supplying power to the third rail weren't installed with proper insulation, meaning that water and debris could reach the metal carrying the power and cause a short or spark.

In addition the evidence collected at L'Enfant, the NTSB also pointed to the electrical "smoke event" in the tunnel outside Court House as being caused in part due to faulty power cable installation.

"Investigators found that cable connectors were missing 'sealing sleeves' designed to keep moisture and contaminants away from the high-voltage conductors," read the NTSB report.

The NTSB's immediate action recommendation instructed Metro to inspect and verify that all cables that were installed had been properly constructed, which the inspections and repair in June were said to have accomplished.

The FTA questioned the thoroughness of WMATA track inspections

The Federal Transit Administration issued a scathing 116-page report last summer detailing numerous safety issues that their inspectors found when investigating how WMATA does business.

One of the issues listed in the report is one that claims that the number of people available to do track inspections was cut in half, meaning that each group of two track walkers meant to inspect the rail and nearby equipment includes only one person who is actually inspecting the tracks, fasteners, power equipment, and electrical systems. The other worker, who used to check the tracks as well, is now dedicated to looking out for trains, which could be coming at any time.

The FTA heard from track inspectors themselves who said that they "cannot adequately inspect both running rails and the third rail" in the time they have to get the inspections done. A side-effect of this could be that the track personnel skip or gloss over more subtle issues, letting them fester until turning into a full-blown issue.

What else is lurking in the tunnels?

With the discovery this week of a system-wide issue with faulty power cables, one has to wonder what might be next. The system inspection in September of Metro's tracks, which only came in response to the derailment at Smithsonian station, revealed several missed code-black defects which should have been caught but weren't. With the seemingly long-held attitude of reacting to problems at Metro instead of getting out in front of them, it's very possible there's another incident just waiting to happen.

Lets hope Mr. Wiedefeld and crew squash the festering problems before they show themselves again.

Transit


BREAKING: Metrorail will shut down completely Wednesday(!)

The entire Metro rail system will shut down from midnight Tuesday night to 5 am Thursday morning. Workers will inspect and replace the kinds of cables that caused Monday's fire.


Photo by mike on Flickr.

WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld held a press conference at 4:30 to discuss the decision. WMATA Board chairman Jack Evans also spoke and fully supported the decision. NBC4 reporter Adam Tuss first broke the news shortly before 4 pm.

Wiedefeld said the investigation into Monday's cable fire revealed "commonalities" between last year's L'Enfant fire and this. He said, "When I say safety is our highest priority, I mean it. That sometimes means making tough, unpopular decisions, and this is one of those times. I fully recognize the hardship this will cause."

The chance of another fire is "very, very low," added Wiedefeld, but "as the person responsible for the life and safety" of riders and workers, he felt this action was necessary.

The agency will inspect 600 underground jumper cables during the shutdown, which will take until 5 am Thursday. If inspectors find other cables that need replacing, they will announce further closures or single-tracking.

What will Wednesday's commute be like?

Will there be car-mageddon? This may show how much the region needs Metro (and a safe and well-maintained Metro).

Buses will continue to run and Wiedefeld said WMATA will increase bus service for schools. Many residents may try the bus for the first time—though those buses might be stuck in massive traffic.

If you can bike, Wednesday would be a good day. Capital Bikeshare is sure to be stretched to the limit.

A lot of people immediately realized ride-hailing services will likely see some heavy demand. Travis Maiers wrote, "Uber's going to be expensive tomorrow, that's for sure."

How we got here

Ronit Dancis said, "Elected officials take note: this is what happens when you don't fund maintenance of public infrastructure and public utilities."

While many riders often rightly blame past WMATA managers and safety officials, there's no doubt that this situation was able to become so dire over time because local and federal governments underfunded maintenance for decades after the system was built. They were able to put less into upkeep without penalty, because things weren't breaking. Now, so much is broken.

Metro isn't the only agency in such a situation.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth said in a statement:

Certainly, we will see on Wednesday just how important Metro is to our region—to our transportation system and our economy. We may also realize amid the expected traffic gridlock tomorrow why dedicated bus lanes would offer a great way to move more people, faster and more reliably than the current bus in traffic model.

We hope that the ongoing challenges facing Metro will prompt our elected leaders to work together to provide the funding necessary to fix longstanding maintenance and rehabilitation problems. Failure is not an option.

Transit


The McPherson fire shows Metro communication is still problematic

A fire and subsequent damage to a Metro tunnel near McPherson Square limited access to several stations and delayed tens of thousands of people on Monday. If Metro employees had communicated with each other more clearly and the agency had updated playbooks for how to handle significant single-tracking through downtown, the day would have been far less chaotic.


Average effective headways on the Orange line for March 14. Graphic from MetroHero.

A fire in the tunnel outside of McPherson Square station caused significant damage to some of the train power equipment, reminiscent of the L'Enfant Plaza fire incident that killed one person and injured tens more in January of last year.

The fire caused the Orange and Blue lines to single-track through the downtown stations for the entire day, and led to Silver line trains only running to Ballston. Having only one track open from Foggy Bottom to Smithsonian station caused reported delays of up to one hour for thousands, helped lead to over 4x surge pricing on Uber, and packed buses for those trying to get to work.

Communication broke down on Monday

Confusion seemed to rule the day, especially between the rail operations control center and train operators. Around 7 am, instructions that came only minutes apart had east-bound trains skipping stations before dispatchers decided on having west-bound trains skip other stations instead.

I overheard radio traffic on the Orange/Blue lines where similar things were happening for a handful of trains coming from Franconia as they were transferred off from one train controller to another. At one point a train operator told to offload at Arlington Cemetery questioned the Orange/Silver/Blue controller whether the message was meant for a colleague because he had already been offloaded a station earlier, at Pentagon.

At least two times during the day Metro, personnel made announcements that Orange/Silver/Blue line trains would be running every 12 minutes instead of the Orange and Silver's usual six, though there was never a MetroAlert or tweet about the change. When Metro did communicate, it wasn't always the most clear, and it indicated service had fully resumed when it really hadn't.

On the Silver line, several train operators were unsure of where they would need to be turning around once they got the order to reverse trains back towards Wiehle at Ballston. And at least a handful of Silver line trains continued on to Virginia Square instead of turning back as instructed.

Part of the rail control center's plan for the day included turning around trains in the reverse direction when several got backed up - like at Rosslyn heading into DC, or at Eastern Market towards Virginia when entering the single-tracking area. These train offloads led to pretty significant crowding at some stations, which the Federal Transit Administration has noted is a safety issue.

The boss was on the scene, but rail operators didn't try alternate train routings

Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld was trackside at McPherson Square station before 8:30 in the morning to check out the damage caused by the fire, something we haven't seen in a number of years. He later gave several fairly honest interviews providing information about what happened, and released the service plan for Monday evening attached to an apology.

Not everybody appeared to be upset with Metro's handling of the fire incident, and that may be due in part to Mr. Wiedefeld. Metro Transit PD officers were on many station platforms helping the rail division handle crowds, and station managers, rail supervisors, and more were attempting to do what they could on the platforms.

While trains single-tracked during the day in the incident area and some stations were skipped in one direction or the other, the operations control center didn't try out any alternate options, which could have included setting up a shuttle train or having a subset of trains skipping certain stops.

The method of sending four trains through the single-tracking area on Monday led to trains running on the Orange line on average every 20 minutes throughout the day, three times slower than trains would otherwise run during rush hour.

Preparation is key

One of the key messages WMATA needs to learn from Monday is that, for better or worse, it needs to be prepared for this kind of thing to happen again. Rail operations central control needs to be able to appoint an incident commander (or put someone in charge in some other way) and issue instructions for how service will operate based on the conditions. That information then needs to be reliably passed down to controllers, train operators, police, station managers, and, most importantly to the public.

Reliable, timely information is critical in a situation like this so people can find alternate methods of transportation and so that those that don't have any know they'll need to spend extra time getting to wherever they need to be.

Transit


How did Metro handle Monday's McPherson fire?

There was an electrical fire outside of McPherson Square this morning that caused delays of up to an hour for some Blue, Orange, and Silver Line riders. Have Metro fires increased lately? Did Metro handle this well? Our contributors weigh in.


Photo by woodleywonderworks on Flickr.

The fire, which happened around 4:30 this morning, closed part of downtown's subway tunnel. Orange and Blue Line trains have been single tracking ever since, with eastbound trains skipping Farragut West and McPherson altogether, and eastbound Silver Line trains turning back at Ballston. Buses have been filling in for trains, and Metro will begin repairs tonight.

Greater Greater Washington contributor Gray Kimbrough wrote a few questions to others on our discussion list:

  1. Is there really an increasing number of fires on Metro tracks, or does it only feel that way lately?
  2. Is this going to be the default service pattern for the Silver Line whenever there is a problem on the SOB shared track?
  3. In hindsight, could WMATA have handled this better? They seem to be saying that since they sent out alerts before rush hour, they did the best they could and commuters should be pretty okay with that. I'm not sure if there's anything more that they could have done, but I'm not sure how smart that stance is.
Stephen Repetski said:
  1. It may just feel that way due to different media coverage they get now. That said, I haven't collated longer-term data on the topic.
  2. Likely; cut service on one to attempt to save it on the other two.
  3. Yes. So much yes. Not even the train operators really knew what was going on this morning, and there were clearly communication breakdowns between train operators, supervisors, and the control center. Metro could have operated a shuttle train through the single-tracking area, and have been organized in their alerts (all trains skipping McPherson/Farragut West—no wait, eastbound trains skipping McPherson—no wait, westbound skipping them!). Communication between train operators, ROCC, and supervisors was horrendous.
Matt Johnson added:
I'll add that there are a variety of causes of smoke in the Metro system. While it's easy to conflate smoke with fire, they are not the same thing, and do not result in the same consequences.

I don't know whether the number of smoke incidences are increasing. However, I do know that WMATA and local jurisdictions are responding to these more strongly than they used to. Any smoke event at all, no matter how minor, now results in the fire department responding. Most of the time, they just stand around while Metro workers resolve the problem. However, what that means is single-tracking.

I suspect strongly that this smoke event was probably caused or exacerbated by the rain we had yesterday/this morning. One of the causes of smoke and fire (counter-intuitively) on Metro is water intrusion. That's one reason that so many of these events happen on the Red Line in the vicinity of Friendship Heights, Bethesda, and Medical Center, where ground water intrusion is a major problem, and has been since the line opened in 1984.

Transit


Paul Wiedefeld lays out his plan to fix Metro

A new plan published Sunday by WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld outlines how he intends to right the agency ship and bring back riders. Wiedefeld hopes to restore Metro's pride and customer trust, which requires confronting its various flaws and addressing them head-on.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Wiedefeld's plan focuses on three tenets: safety/security, reliability, and financial housekeeping. These "hard truths" need to be dealt with, he says, and failures in the past have "shaken confidence in the operational safety of the rail system." He said Metro's safety culture is "not integrated with operations, nor well-rooted at all levels."

Service reliability is riders' top complaint, he notes. Rail on-time performance dropped from 92% to 85% in 2015, largely due to maintenance issues. This has significantly frustrated riders and caused some to seek other ways to travel.

Financially, Wiedefeld identified mismanaged/underspent capital projects, doing less with more employees, and unstable long-term finances as some key issues holding the agency back.

Here's the plan:

Stating the problems is, perhaps, the easy part. But Wiedefeld also laid out a plan to move forward so that Metrorail, Metrobus, and MetroAccess customers can take pride in and trust WMATA. In what he's calling a Customer Accountability Report (CARe), Wiedefeld outlined how he intends to start turning things around:

  • Begin installing the new public safety radio system and cabling for new underground cell service.
  • Be transparent about the agency's deliverables to the NTSB and the FTA; show what issues have been fixed, and when.
  • Publish and implement a new rail service reliability plan to cut down on train breakdowns and crowding.
  • Be clear on the status of track and infrastructure projects; show how far along projects are, and what their impact is.
  • Improve the stations: more/better lighting, signage, etc.; trial a "Metro Volunteer Program" to help visitors in the stations.
  • Cut agency overhead; eliminate positions that may not really be needed or are redundant.
  • Get better about planning and executing large infrastructure projects so funds are properly spent and customers know what is happening.
...the list goes on and on. I would encourage you to read both the letter and the Customer Accountability Report to see what all Mr. Wiedefeld is planning for the agency.


Customer Accountability Report (CARe). Image from WMATA.

Will this time be any different?

That this letter was even published marks a shift in tone for WMATA, and is even a nod towards increased transparency. Mr. Wiedefeld's pivot from learning and analyzing the agency towards implementing and carrying out change is progress. This letter should be the start of customer-focused moves to win back riders.

Of course, the key is now putting the plan into action, which will require buy-in from management, the Board, and front-line employees. Additionally, the big-picture questions around finances will require effort from civic leaders to help determine a viable long-term path.

Transparency plays a significant part in the new plan. Actions in the CARe include publishing when cell signal is turned on in tunnels, publishing and implementing a new track quality improvement program to best work on track while attempting to minimize delays and frustration, and posting the status of major capital projects in a routine manner.

While the action plan primarily addresses the overall issues, the small details are the important ones. An action plan to "strengthen command center operations" needs to be able to resolve the small yet critically important details such as wording and readbacks between the rail operations control center and Metro Transit Police, procedures and protocols used during service and in emergencies, and more.

Dotting the Is and crossing the Ts may take the longest, but is important to get right.

Paul Wiedefeld will not be able to do this alone; he'll need support and feedback to know that the right things are being done. Front-line employees will need to be ok with the changes; management will need to make sure day-to-day actions have the end-goal of improving the customer experience; and the agency's executive team needs to be on board and willing to carry out the changes. Dictating how a 13,000-employee agency is run may not work, but leading by example can.

Time will tell if customers see the changes that this report kicks off, and ridership will show whether the changes have been taken to heart.

Read the letter:

Transit


These are the problems the feds say WMATA needs to fix

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.

Budget


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.

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