Feds Issue Emergency Safety Directive for D.C. Metrorail

WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld

WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld Evan Vucci / AP Photo

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As the FTA continues to rebuke WMATA over safety, the transit agency lays out a difficult—but necessary—plan to make badly needed repairs.

WASHINGTON — Metrorail commuters in and around the nation’s capital will be dealing with a year’s worth of painful service reductions and station closures across the 117-mile regional transit system as part of an emergency maintenance surge to start in June.

Friday’s announcement from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority about its "Safe Track" maintenance surge was followed by a move on Saturday from the Federal Transit Administration to release an emergency safety directive demanding more action from WMATA to ensure safe rail operations.

That directive also criticized WMATA’s “slow and inadequate” response to recent smoke events, including a third-rail insulator explosion that “sprayed fiery metal and ceramic projectiles onto the station platform” at a station in Southwest Washington.

Nobody was hurt in that incident, which was captured in dramatic video footage.

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In Safety Directive 16-3, the FTA, which assumed safety oversight of Metrorail in October 2015, said that there were “multiple failures” by WMATA’s Rail Operations Control Center in response to Thursday’s incidents. The ROCC initially denied inspectors access to the impacted track area, according to the FTA. Trains continued serving the impacted area of track for hours but Metrorail service along the Blue, Orange and Silver lines was later suspended through the Federal Center SW Station so emergency repairs could be made.

Saturday’s FTA directive said that WMATA needed to “prioritize safety over revenue service” and suggested reducing the number of railcars on trains, instituting speed restrictions and reducing the level of electricity in "known high risk areas."

It was another stinging federal rebuke for WMATA, which has struggled to dig out from a lengthy maintenance backlog and has a sorry safety track record, which includes the fatal June 2009 Red Line collision that killed nine people and the January 2015 Yellow Line smoke incident where one passenger died.

On Friday, Paul Wiedefeld, WMATA’s general manager and chief executive officer, released his comprehensive plan to shut down stretches of track or institute single-track zones continuously over many days—or in some cases a few weeks.

Continuous shutdowns will mean rush-hour closures, too, and will force commuters to find alternate ways to navigate the often-congested D.C. metropolitan area.

With Friday’s announcement, WMATA released its plans for the various maintenance surges across the system, anticipated impacts for Metrorail riders and commuting alternatives.

“As we all know, the current approach has not been working very well,” Wiedefeld said. “It will take us years to achieve the safety and reliability needs that our customers deserve. So the plan is going to address that in a much shorter time frame—roughly a year.”

As The Washington Post reported on Saturday, a spokesman for the FTA said that WMATA’s new maintenance plan “is an important piece of the puzzle, but . . . it does not fully tackle many of the serious safety issues facing the system.”

Additionally, the Post reported, WMATA Board Chairman Jack Evans has been frustrated with the FTA for “second-guessing Metro when, in his view, the transit agency’s recently installed leadership was already pushing ahead aggressively on safety.”

As WMATA reviews the FTA’s latest safety directive and decides how to move forward, the transit agency is moving forward on the maintenance surge.

It’s a bitter—and unfortunately necessary—pill for WMATA, the passengers it transports and the jurisdictions its rail system serves in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia to swallow. And it is shining a bright and needed light on WMATA’s intergovernmental challenges that make funding and operating the D.C. area’s transportation backbone difficult.

WMATA’s forthcoming major maintenance sprint to help rehabilitate the system is imperative, but it’s going to hurt the D.C. region. The area’s transportation pain is going to get worse before it gets better. But when an agency is trying to pull out of a “death spiral,” there are no ways around that reality. 

Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive’s Route Fifty. In a previous professional life, he worked as a Federal Transit Administration consultant on a post-9/11 emergency preparedness program.

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