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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.

Transit


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.

Transit


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.

Transit


Some Metro trains are running more slowly than usual these days. Here's why.

If you ride Metro, you've probably noticed or at least heard about trains being slower than usual lately. It's happening because Metro has instituted "slow zones" in order to inspect and repair tracks.


Image from stephanie harry on Flickr.

In mid-August, a train derailed on defective track near Smithsonian station. Following the incident, WMATA revealed that the defective track had been discovered a month prior during an inspection, but went unrepaired.

After the August derailment, WMATA Acting General Manager/CEO directed staff to perform track inspections on every mile of track in the system. Metro has been using its Track Geometry Vehicle (TGV) to check the system's rails for defects, as well as manual inspections while walking the tracks to see if the track is safe. The "aggressive campaign to visually inspect curved sections of track on the Metrorail system" has meant speed restrictions on most lines, mainly curves.

Fixing the tracks means slower trips

The Red Line is the one with the most slowdowns. Speed restrictions, where the trains are limited to speeds below what the track is ordinarily rated for, were placed on sections of track near the core between Union Station and NoMa-Gallaudet on August 19th where all track ties and fasteners of a 1300-foot section of track had to be replaced.

Additional track work is being done mid-day between NoMa-Gallaudet and Rhode Island Avenue which is possibly related, but at very least causing single-tracking during the mid-day work window. Both of these portions of mid-day work continue through September 19th.

On August 21st, the speed restrictions were expanded system-wide to any curved section of track rated for running trains at-or-above 35 miles per hour on all lines.

In a tweet from WMATA's Board member Augustine, there are no lingering "code black" issues-- issues where the track needs to be shut down immediately--known to be in the system.

Different problems mean different speeds

WMATA says it is imposing speed restrictions on track as a precaution while it performs inspections system-wide.

Metro classifies track defects using a color system. "Level black" level defects require that the track be taken out of service immediately, like what should have happened to the track outside the Smithsonian station. "Level red" problems require deep speed restrictions. Other defects, like "level yellow" may require speed restrictions, but they're not as urgent.

On August 14th, there were nine "red" track problems through the system, meaning restrictions needed to be put in place in order to prevent further damage and to ensure safety until the track could be repaired. In these locations, trains are restricted to 15 mph.

There were only four on August 28th, but as of the 31st, the number was back up to five.

Speed restrictions themselves are not a new method of slowing trains, nor are they unique to WMATA. MARC and VRE commuters during the summer will oftentimes see delays on the Brunswick or Camden lines due to speed restrictions put in place by CSX (who actually owns the tracks they operate on), since high temperatures can cause significant track problems.

According to WMATA spokesperson Brian Anderson, "the 234-mile Metrorail system on a typical day averages ten speed restrictions, nothing new or different as a result of our non-passenger train derailment. The reasons restrictions are put in place can vary from personnel working in a work zone to general track/infrastructure conditions, such as water infiltration, missing or broken components, wear, etc."

The first apparent track issue after the derailment that required immediate work was on August 17th between Clarendon and Foggy Bottom on the Orange/Silver/Blue lines. An inspection earlier in the day by the TGV required taking a track out of service for around two hours for an unspecified urgent repair.

Here's where trains are slowing down

While WMATA has confirmed that there are currently five "slow" areas of track, it hasn't said how many "medium" sections (where speed is limited to between 35 and 40 mph) there are. Below is a collection of what I know based on official information and third-party reports:

  • All medium/high-speed curves in the system are subject to speed restrictions of below 35mph until they are cleared to be put back into service

  • Acknowledged Slow Speed Restrictions (15mph limit)

    • Yellow - Pentagon to L'Enfant, both directions (Metro has said this one is weeks away from being resolved.

    • Red - Medical Center to Grosvenor, Glenmont direction

    • Red - Dupont Circle to Woodley Park, Shady Grove direction

    • Red - Union Station to NoMa-Gallaudet, Glenmont direction

    • Red - Orange/Silver/Blue - Foggy Bottom to Farragut West, New Carrollton/Largo direction

  • Possible Medium-Speed Restrictions

    • Red - Bethesda - Friendship Heights

    • Red - Judiciary Square - Union Station - curves

    • Red - NoMa-Gallaudet - Rhode Island Avenue

    • Red - Forest Glen - Silver Spring - restrictions appear limited to the curves

About your trip...

Speed restrictions will slow your trip down if you travel anywhere near one. Even if a slow section of track does not specifically affect your train, it may slow another in front of you thus affecting you. For the Red Line in particular, since there are multiple speed restrictions, there will be a noticeable increase in commutes especially on the western two thirds of the line.

Also, with trains still being operated mostly in manual mode instead of automatic, the ride may be jerkier than you are used to. Restrictions are placed on a track in sections and can sometimes change between days, leaving train operators to sometimes brake or accelerate quickly when they enter a new "circuit," or section of track.

"The current slow speed restrictions are a result of safety inspections finding track conditions," said Anderson. "Work is underway to make permanent repairs. We anticipate removing NoMa-Union Station the third week of September; Yellow Line bridge is still weeks away from completion."

Track inspections and work are ongoing in off-peak and night hours, which should be geared towards reducing or eliminating the speed restrictions, and WMATA says they want to have them all completed sometime by September 19th. Keep in mind, however, that not all speed restrictions are related to the derailment incident and that there may always be a few here or there as regular inspections and work is done on the system over time.

Without further public communication from WMATA, it is hard to tell where other speed restrictions are. Communication from the agency has been haphazard, split between silently-announced postings on their website and direct replies to complaining travelers on Twitter, and no official list has been published to allow customers to plan ahead.

However, if you are traveling on Metro and encounter any of these areas or are using lines affected, expect delays. You should be moving momentarily.

Update: A previous version of this post listed an incorrect location of a speed restriction. Metro has since confirmed its location, and the latest version has both that information as well as both context on how many speed restrictions are usually found on the system daily and more info on the timeline for removing some of the restrictions.

Transit


A Metro employee erroneously deleted a warning about track problems before the recent derailment

Equipment designed to detect track problems alerted Metro employees to the dangerous condition that led to a train derailing last month, but an employee deleted the information by mistake, according to a report from WMATA on the incident.


Photos by Kelli Raboy.

According to the report, the Track Geometry Vehicle spits out warnings as it rolls over the tracks if it detects any problems. The worst kind, like this one, are "Level Black."

However, the machine also reports "Level Black" sometimes when there's no problem at all. For example, when it goes over a switch, the track geometry there isn't the same as on straight track, and there will be innocuous warnings. Or a curve is supposed to have a little extra room. A human operator is supposed to interpret the raw data and decide where there need to be repairs.

In this case, the operator made a mistake, and deleted this "Level Black" from his report while keeping in several others which got fixed. The system still stored all of the raw data, but there was no process where anyone else would compare the operator's list of repairs against the original raw data. Therefore, his mistake meant that nobody else saw the problem, either.

The operator in question and his supervisor both resigned, according to WAMU's Martin di Caro, and other employees may face discipline.

This problem is different from, but sounds somewhat similar to, one of the problems before the 2009 Red Line crash. There, the signal system would regularly report errors, but so many that workers started ignoring them. After all, nothing had been wrong the last few thousand times that error popped up. Until, that is, something was very wrong.

There, they were ignoring real errors thinking they were normal. Here, the official protocol was to ignore some errors of this type. But it seems like a dangerous situation in any case when staff get used to ignoring errors.


Operators have a list of places where there are exceptions in the system.

Both humans and computers will look at the track data more closely

To deal with this, Metro is adding processes where a supervisor will review the report with the operator after the run and compare it to the raw data. That way, it's less likely (though still possible) for a real problem to get ignored.

Just doing that sounds risky, since if the Track Geometry Vehicle regularly spits out "Level Black" errors that both the operator and supervisor are supposed to ignore, it's very easy for them to just get used to ignoring them and gloss over a real one once in a while by mistake.

That's why it's nice to see in the report that Metro is also working to write computer code that can know about the usual spots where not-really-errors crop up. If a specific switch or joint always gives the same error, and that error is actually not a problem at all, then rather than reporting one every time which the operator is trained to delete, maybe the system should report it differently, so that the real Level Black errors stick out more.

Metro will also remind staff that the automated machines are supposed to only supplement, not replace, the visual inspections that also happen. It's easy to stop paying such close attention if you've got a machine that can do it, but the machine can fail.


Metro's track geometry vehicle.

This report is welcome

We've been complaining for some time that WMATA top officials just say "we've got this" and don't share much information publicly. This report is much more forthcoming about the details of what's going on, and while that's no substitute for having avoided the problem in the first place, at least being open about the findings now is a positive step.

To continue to build trust, riders deserve to also hear more in the future about how well some of these efforts are going. Many of these findings relate to building the "safety culture" that former General Manager Rich Sarles was supposedly instituting.

The public needs some more assurances about how a safety culture is being built, as it happens. We all can hope Metro actually does build up that safety culture and make these processes succeed; given WMATA's low level of public confidence, continuing to provide more information can help people actually believe it.

Transit


The WMATA Board blames employees for the derailed train instead of looking at its own leadership failures

Following stunning revelations that some people at WMATA knew the tracks were out of alignment near Smithsonian Metro a month before a train derailed at the same spot, the WMATA Board released a statement of outrage. But the board only focused on blaming the people immediately responsible and not the culture and leadership that led to the situation.


Covering eyes image from Shutterstock.

The statement says,

The Board is outraged and dismayed that anyone working at Metro would have critical safety information and not act on it immediately. It is totally unacceptable that the wide gauge track problem reported yesterday by the General Manager could go unaddressed and unrepaired for four weeks. ...

However, Jack Requa's transparent release of information, as well as his actions to order immediate track inspections and gather information to hold people accountable at every level, is what the Board expects and what the circumstances demand. ...

The Board looks forward to learning how the chain of command broke down and where the responsibility lies. This is an unforgivable breach of safety that needs to be dealt with firmly and swiftly.

This statement implies that there is some problem deep within the chain of command, some bad apples or a process failure that must be rooted out and dealt with, but little more than that. That's not the case.

The problems at Metro are endemic and far-reaching. They don't stop at any one person at the agency. WMATA's deficiencies stem from its management structure, organizational culture, funding woes, deferred maintenance, and its own Board of Directors, which squabbled for months in a way that stopped the agency from hiring a new general manager.

Yes, not acting on information that tracks were dangerously out of alignment for four weeks is an egregious failure of the "safety culture" the agency seems to think it has. And that particular instance might fall on the shoulders of one or two people.

But the larger set of lapses, from poorly installed insulation on electric cables, to not hiring and training workers in the rail control center, to nonfunctioning radios and track gauge problems, proves that the problems are more widespread than that. These aren't personal failings. They're institutional failures.

Even if the agency identifies a few employees who were negligent and fires them, it doesn't solve the underlying problem: WMATA is reactionary, not proactive.

Yes, this incident was a derailment that should have been prevented. But what other safety lapses are lurking under the surface just waiting to erupt?

If this were the only safety lapse at WMATA in a decade, maybe we wouldn't worry. But this is just the latest (and probably not the last) event in a chain stretching back beyond the fatal 2009 crash at Fort Totten.

Where does the responsibility lie? It lies squarely at the feet of those who've sat on the board for years now, many of whom came in after the Fort Totten crash to turn things around, who hired Rich Sarles, and who've left the agency arguably even worse off than they found it.

But rather than step up to that responsibility, the board's statement did not even include an apology and shows no understanding that they haven't done their jobs or that the agency needs deeper change.

Rebuilding WMATA isn't just about welding rail and replacing ties. It's also about fixing the problems with the institutional culture. That's a far harder task.

The region needs a board that will fight for change at WMATA. Not just because we need a functioning transit system. But because lives literally depend on it.

WMATA has many hard-working and dedicated staff members. Many of them want the agency to do better. But they can't do it without leadership from the top. The board has a role to play in fixing the agency. Sadly, this message instead conveys that the board doesn't recognize the problem and isn't ready to take responsibility.

Transit


The five most frustrating things about Metro's problems

For a few years after the 2009 Fort Totten Red Line crash, public confidence in Metro's safety was growing. But a smoke fatality in January, a scathing federal report, and hearings last week have put safety back into the spotlight.


Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

I talked about Metro's safety on the Kojo Nnamdi Show last Monday, with guest host Jen Golbeck and Greater Washington Board of Trade head Jim Dinegar. Wednesday, I talked with Mike Coneen on NewsTalk with Bruce DePuyt after the first day of hearings.

During the first day, details emerged that the operator of the train in the smoky tunnel wanted to pull the train back out, but was told to wait.

A train behind it had already come into the station, and police decided to evacuate that train, which made it impossible to move it out of the way to make room for the train in the tunnel. There didn't seem to be a clear response plan for this kind of situation or someone in charge who could coordinate all of the first responders.

After the Fort Totten crash, it became clear that the Tri-State Oversight Committee (TOC), a group of safety officials from DC, Maryland, and Virginia tasked with monitoring safety, wasn't functioning well. Reforms supposedly set it up to succeed.

Apparently not, though. We discovered that the TOC wasn't able to issue many recommendations because it had to wait for higher-ups in DC, Maryland, and Virginia to agree, and then when it did, WMATA often didn't follow up.

WMATA and regional governments need to quickly address not only the specific failures of the L'Enfant incident, but also deal with the bigger picture issues. A few things stick out as frustrating for riders.


Smoke in a Metro car during the L'Enfant incident. Photo by Jonathan Rogers on Twitter.

1. Reforms around safety haven't fixed safety.

After the crash, some people argued that the WMATA Board had focused too much on service and neglected safety. Under political pressure, many long-serving board members resigned or were replaced. Instead of elected officials, who'd been more focused on what was frustrating riders, the board got a new crop of transit experts like current chairman Mort Downey and last year's chairman Tom Downs.

They brought in an old friend and old grizzled transit veteran, Rich Sarles, to be general manager. They said his experience should help get WMATA on a solid footing of safety and otherwise maintain a firm hand on the wheel. But it doesn't really look like the safety culture is so solid after all.

WMATA has other issues to deal with, too. Customer service is often pretty poor, and the agency is secretive not just with safety information but a lot more as well. It was pretty clear that Sarles was not the man to reform these aspects of the agency, but arguably getting a rock-solid safety foundation first was most important, and then Sarles' successor could tackle other needs. That's not possible now.


General Manager Richard Sarles testifies on safety in 2010. Image from WMATA.

2. Replacing the board didn't fix financial oversight, either.

WMATA also didn't follow procurement laws properly, which led the Federal Transit Administration to put WMATA in a "penalty box." WMATA now can't get its federal money until after it's spent it, creating a cash crunch.

Transit experts disagree on how much of an immediate crisis this represents—Downey and other insiders say it's just a short-term cash flow problem, while some, like DC CEO Jeffrey DeWitt, warn about WMATA being unable to repay its bonds.

Either way, however, it's maddening that this situation arose at all. As with safety, there was a whole push to get "experts" on the board of directors. Where were they?


Surprise image from Shutterstock.

3. All of these problems came as a surprise.

There were people who knew that these safety issues and financial issues created risks, but the public didn't, and neither apparently did many board members. The Inspector General was sounding the alarm on some of these problems, but IG reports tend to be opaque if they're even public.

This is just like what happened with the Fort Totten crash, where there were people aware the track circuits weren't working, but they didn't share that information widely enough. It's not okay to have a culture of hiding problems from superiors. It's not okay to hide this kind of information from policy-makers and the public, either.

Riders aren't so stupid that they can't be trusted to know about the various safety efforts underway. People know about the risks of roads and still drive. It's worse for the agency's reputation to have kept safety and financial pitfalls a secret and more disturbing when they then come to light.

4. Underfunding is a problem, but it's hard to fix now.

These management problems are infurating, but mismananagement is only half of the problem. Underfunding is the other half. WMATA didn't get enough money over decades to keep up with repairs, and now has to contend with a huge backlog.

The radios weren't working during the L'Enfant incident, which is inexcusable, but it would be a lot easier to criticize the agency for not fixing its radio systems if it hadn't been trying to fix the track circuits and a zillion other pieces, all of which work well enough day-to-day but might contribute to a safety problem at some point.

Unfortunately, it's even harder to get that funding when the news is so bad. Congress is planning to cut in half the money it promised for repairs after the 2009 crash. A lot of this might just be ideological opposition to transit from conservative members, but all of these problems, and the lack of honesty in the past, sure don't help.


A crowded train. Photo by philliefan99 on Flickr.

5. We need Metro to not only thrive, but grow.

Metro ridership has stopped growing, but it'll pick up again, and we need to be planning now to deal with the capacity crunches. Metro needs 8-car trains, but now the region won't buy enough railcars to make it possible, let alone upgrade power systems and add yard space.

Metro needs to solve the bottleneck at Rosslyn which now limits the number of Blue Line trains and will only get worse in the future.

Two years ago, we were talking about the Momentum plan to deal with Metro's needs first for 2025 and then beyond. Today, sadly, there isn't much momentum at all.

Which is sad, because Metro still is a very valuable transportation system. Our region depends on it—there isn't enough road space, or parking space, for all of the commuters otherwise. And it's actually quite a speedy way to get around, when it works and when you're going somewhere near a station.

We can't afford to let Metro stagnate or decay. Sadly, it turns out we didn't make nearly as much progress over the last six years as we thought.

You can listen to the Kojo segment here and watch the NewsTalk video below:

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