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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:


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.


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!

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