Congress rips DC Metro over falsified reports that led to July train derailment

Congress rips DC Metro over falsified reports that led to July train derailment
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Congress ripped Washington’s Metro transit system Friday for falsifying reports about dangerous track defects that contributed to a train derailment in Northern Virginia this summer.

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But lawmakers generally pulled their punches when it came to Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld. Instead, they turned their fire on Metro’s board of directors, its union group and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), which assumed temporary oversight of Metro last fall.

“Unfortunately, the leadership crisis at Metro has evolved rather than diminished,” Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyBlack Caucus rallies behind Meeks for Foreign Affairs gavel Ousted watchdog says he told top State aides about Pompeo probe House committee chair requests immediate briefing on Secret Service's involvement in clearing protesters MORE (D-Va.) said during a joint House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Friday. “The enduring leadership crisis at Metro resides in the [Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Agency] Board of Directors.”

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released transcripts on Thursday of interrogations between Metro safety officers and track inspectors, who suggested fear of retaliation caused them to falsify inspection reports about track conditions.

Metro, which began implementing a massive repair project in June, had already been under fire for chronic safety issues prior to the derailment.

The NTSB report is just the latest bruise on the beleaguered transit agency’s reputation and is sure to cast further doubt about whether Metro’s ongoing efforts to overhaul the safety culture are working.

“I’m tired of hearings, I’m tired of excuses, I’m tired of us [hearing] ‘well if you just give us a little bit more time, we’ll get it fixed,’” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the Government Operations Subcommittee. “WMATA is not a fine wine. It does not improve with time.”

In July, deteriorating rail ties and a wide track gauge caused a Silver Line train to derail near East Falls Church. Metro track inspectors had apparently fabricated reports on the condition of the track area by repeating the exact same track measurements from month to month, while supervisors routinely neglected to heed concerns raised by inspectors.

“So how did your measurements stay the same if your ties are getting worse and worse?” Metro safety officer Robert Davis asked one track inspector in August. “You’re not going to tell me that the track didn’t move a sixteenth of an inch or an eighth of an inch or a quarter of an inch over that time.”

Another track inspector told Davis that supervisors often “swept stuff under the rug,” including ignoring deteriorating rail ties because managers didn’t think it was a serious safety threat.

“I’m not going to say they knew about a wide gauge, but they knew something is going on there, because they put a Band-Aid on it,” the inspector said. “And in this company, they do a lot of that. You know, they put on Band-Aids.”

Lawmakers on Friday called on Metro to hold its workers accountable and pressed the union representing Metro employees for the names of supervisors who allegedly instructed employees to falsify reports.

“If they’re falsifying records, they need to be fired,” Meadows said. “Pure and simple.”

Raymond Jackson, second vice president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, said workers were set up to fail and pressured into falsifying reports.

Connolly, who emphasized he is supportive of unions, said there needs to be a trade off between good wages and good performance. He expressed frustration that Metro’s union helped overturn a decision to fire an employee who ran a red signal.

“I insist there also has to be some accountably in the workforce,” Connolly said.

Connolly also blasted District of Columbia Councilman Jack Evans, chairman of the board of directors, and his colleagues for saying Metro should cancel the rest of its Silver Line project and suggesting Metro needs a federal takeover.

“Your comments were cheap and reckless and have huge implications on my side of the river," he said.

Connolly called the comments “political theater” and said they did little to help build public and congressional support for the ailing transit agency, which is facing a nearly $300 million budget shortfall next year.

Evans lightly defended the comments, saying the suggestion to scrap the Silver Line project was merely a response to a question about potential ways to save money.

“You and I are on the same page on this,” Evans said. “We need more funding from the jurisdictions.”

“I think the Silver Line will be a tremendous addition to Metro,” he added.

NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart reiterated his concern about the FTA maintaining oversight of Metro while the local jurisdictions establish a permanent oversight body.

Hart maintained that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) would have more teeth to enforce safety regulations, even though Congress gave FTA some greater authority in a highway bill last year.

When pressed on whether the FTA was partly at fault for the July derailment, FTA’s executive director, Matthew Welbes, was reluctant to say his agency was responsible.

"So do you dispute the report ... that says despite pulling together substantial resources, you weren’t on the job at the East Falls Church derailment?” asked Connolly.

Welbes insisted his agency has applied more scrutiny to hundreds of miles of Metro track than the federal government ever has before. He said Metro wasn’t following its own procedures about track inspections and blamed systematic failures for the derailment.

“I’m tired of people blaming different people for the problem,” Meadows said. “Mr. Hart has done his work. Mr. Wiedefeld is doing his work. Yet it keeps coming back to you, and your unwillingness to get the appropriate people involved in the oversight and management.”