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Feds slam DC Metro's track inspection program

Feds slam DC Metro's track inspection program
© Moriah Ratner

Systematic deficiencies, which have led to train derailments and other safety issues, persist in Washington Metrorail's track inspection program, according to a scathing new report from federal investigators.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) released its finding Monday, along with a safety directive requiring Metro to correct a number of its track problems.

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The FTA, which assumed oversight of Washington's transit authority last fall, began its investigation this spring amid concerns about a train derailment last year and a tunnel fire in March that led to a daylong shutdown of the entire system for emergency inspections.

The beleaguered transit agency began rolling out a massive new rail repair project in June, but Metro has continued to be plagued by a series of safety lapses, including another train derailment just last month.

“During the course of this investigation, track safety incidents continued to occur,” the report notes.

The FTA found that Metro’s track inspection program does not give workers enough time to inspect assigned areas or account for differences in train traffic or track types.

The report also found that Metro has failed to prioritize important track inspections or allocate limited resources toward high-priority issues, while its track inspection manual is riddled with outdated references, confusing and conflicting track standards and requirements, and does not clearly specify minimum safety standards. 

“As a consequence, the procedure for WMATA [Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority] track inspectors and supervisors to use the manual to assess track conditions and clearly identify which conditions warrant speed restrictions is not well understood by track inspectors or track supervisors,” the report says. “Furthermore ... WMATA’s track inspectors require additional technical training and mentoring to overcome gaps in knowledge and experience.” 

When it comes to the most recent train derailment near Falls Church in Northern Virginia on July 29, the FTA found that crossties were deteriorating, fasteners were missing and inspectors were not following guidelines to inspect the tracks twice a week.

The National Transportation Safety Board issued similar findings last week while also suggesting that Metro was aware of the track problems in the accident area since 2009.

“These conditions clearly exceeded allowable safety parameters specified in WMATA’s track safety standards, and were not found or addressed by WMATA personnel prior to the derailment,” the FTA report says. “There is also evidence that WMATA was not adhering to established standards regarding the frequency of track inspections.”

The FTA is now asking Metro to develop additional track inspection training and certification requirements, establish a new track inspection plan that gives crews more time and prioritizes important areas, and revise its manual, among other things.

The transit agency has 60 days to develop a strategy for how it plans to execute the safety directives.