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Metro's Latest Safety Lapse Exposes Major Questions As Riders Return To The Rails

Transparent response to power problems sought by Metro GM

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A rider enters a Metro train in the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro station Tuesday, March 15, 2016 in Washington. The system was shut down Wednesday so the transit agency could conduct inspections.
(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
A rider enters a Metro train in the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro station Tuesday, March 15, 2016 in Washington. The system was shut down Wednesday so the transit agency could conduct inspections.

Trains loaded with passengers had been traveling over potentially hazardous third rail electrical cables, leaders of the D.C. region’s transit authority said on Wednesday, the latest in a pattern of safety lapses shaking commuters’ confidence in the all-important Metrorail system.

Moreover, a track fire involving power cables did not end in tragedy on Monday morning because of fortunate timing, the general manager of Metro conceded.

The fire happened before the system opened, unlike the incident at L’Enfant Plaza on Jan. 12, 2015, when smoke filled a Yellow Line train inside the tunnel. Carol Glover, 61, of Alexandria died and more than 80 other passengers were sickened.

“Clearly, the conditions were very similar to what we experienced at L’Enfant Plaza in terms of the smoke,” said WMATA general manager Paul Wiedefeld at a news conference.

“I am asking the same question. How could this be? We were here 14 months ago. How did we get here again?” Wiedefeld said.

Open safety questions

The disclosure that track inspectors, working around the clock during an unprecedented all-day shutdown of America’s second busiest subway, found 26 locations — all along the Blue, Orange, and Silver Line tracks in downtown D.C. — where power cables required repairs brought on immediate condemnation from the region’s political leadership.

“Today’s inspection of power cables throughout the Metrorail system revealed disturbing safety shortfalls that should have been identified and fixed immediately following last year’s tragic L’Enfant incident, if not sooner,” said Congressman Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) in a statement.

“Based on the images released by Metro, several of those cables were at risk of causing another fire.”

Metro leaders sought to assure the public they had corralled the immediate problem. In a video presentation at WMATA headquarters, Wiedefeld narrated as images showed dangerously deteriorated cables, known internally as “show-stoppers.”

“We would not be running trains if we came upon these conditions,” he said. “This is why the system was shut down.”

But even as the transit authority announced the successful completion of repairs and the re-opening of all six rail lines, a number of pressing questions remained unanswered, exacerbating concerns that more safety problems lie undetected in the sprawling 100-mile track system.

Untangling electrical cables

First, Wiedefeld could not explain either why track inspectors missed the power cable problems during scheduled inspections last year or whether the cable fraying happened recently.

“The assessment is not completed yet, but this is the most heavily traveled portion of the system so the wear and tear is going to be much greater,” Wiedefeld said, referring to the tracks shared by three lines through the downtown core. Since it opened in July, 2014, the Silver Line has negatively affected operations across Metrorail, including the additional strain it has placed on the system’s core capacity.

More important, Metro still has not gotten to the bottom of why some of its third rail power connections deteriorate and burn. Only partial answers are available.

“Inspection teams found some or all of the following conditions: damaged cables, damaged cable connecting boots, debris encroaching on electrical areas and water infiltration,” said a Metro statement. “While these findings do not indicate that cable fires were imminent, these conditions are hazardous and increase the risk of fires on the tracks.”

The cause of Monday’s track fire remains under investigation, Wiedefeld said.

The pattern continues?

Metro’s top leadership is new and a thorough overhaul of the WMATA leadership structure is in the offing. And although this safety crisis is the first of Wiedefeld’s tenure, it partly fits the old pattern, underscoring the fact that the new general manager inherited enormous problems with no quick solution.

The L’Enfant Plaza smoke incident, which led to two ongoing federal investigations, was merely the first in a series of incidents that point back to the same issue: Metro has failed to establish a safety culture, according to a range of observers, both critics and WMATA supporters.

Many of the high-profile incidents of the past 14 months have exposed their own set of deeper problems. For instance, after an empty train derailed near Smithsonian station last August, it was learned that the track problem had been detected but was left unaddressed for 28 days.

The revelations led to the abrupt resignation of Metro’s chief safety officer. The necessary practices that could have prevented the derailment were lacking, said Metro board members who demanded the safety officer’s resignation.

Following Wednesday’s shutdown, Jackie Jeter, the president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, praised Wiedefeld for prioritizing passenger and worker safety, but said the episode reinforced the absence of a true safety regime.

“Part of the problem at WMATA is the development of a safety culture. Do I think we are there yet? No. Do I think this one incident gives everyone a sense of trust? No. But I do think that it is a move in the right direction,” Jeter said.

Where Wiedefeld’s handling of the incident may mark a change is obvious: instead of continuing to run trains during the day and relegating repairs to off-hours, he shut down the entire system and sought to transparently convey the extent of the problem.

Answers needed

The National Transportation Safety Board is expected to release its final investigative report in May on the L’Enfant Plaza fiasco last January. The cause of the electrical malfunction that filled the Yellow Line tunnel with smoke, trapping Carol Glover and her fellow commuters, is expected to be explained in that report.

In June 2015, the NTSB issued an urgent finding concerning Metro’s electrical cabling in tunnels.

“Investigators found that some electrical connections associated with the power supply to the third rail were improperly constructed and installed, which can allow moisture and contaminants to enter the components,” the agency said. “Such conditions can create the potential for electrical short circuiting, which could result in fire and smoke events in the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority system.”

That finding forced Metro to begin replacing the insulator sleeves on about 80 percent of 6,500 power units. About half of the work is finished, Wiedefeld said on Wednesday.

But at the time the NTSB issued the recommendation, top Metro rail officials did not believe the work was necessary. Rob Troup, the then-deputy general manager who has since resigned, told acting general manager Jack Requa he disagreed with the safety board’s assessment, according to sources with knowledge of events.

Troup resigned last month after the revelation a train operator overran a red signal by several hundred feet, coming dangerously close to another train at a station platform.

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