A passenger-train derailment coupled with another tough federal critique of track-maintenance programs has prompted the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority (WMATA) to modify once again its strategy for restoring its Metrorail system to a state of good repair.
WMATA also said it has hired engineering firm Mott MacDonald to evaluate its system's track conditions and rewrite its track inspection and maintenance manual.
The latest high-profile operational disruptions at Metrorail in a period of about two years occurred on July 31, when a train carrying 60 passengers derailed while crossing from one set of tracks to another at an above-ground station in suburban Virginia.
A preliminary National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigative report, released on Aug. 3, cited deteriorated wooden ties in the crossover section and loose and missing interlocking components as probably having caused the rails to move laterally. The resulting wide-gauge condition led to the train’s slipping off the track, NTSB said.
Although WMATA was nearing completion of a 12-day accelerated maintenance “surge” nearby, the crossover section remained in operation so that trains could share the eastbound track while work proceeded uninterrupted on the westbound side. No incidents had been reported with other trains using the crossover during previous maintenance activities.
WMATA later replaced more than 450 wooden ties in the crossover area and launched supervisory-level inspections to determine whether issues exist at similar interlockings elsewhere on the 117-mile Metrorail system, which is the second largest in the U.S.
WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld told reporters at an Aug. 10 briefing that, because the crossover sections are essential to maintain service during Metrorail’s year-long “SafeTrack” accelerated-maintenance program, the agency may have to impose weekend-long service shutdowns on those segments and reschedule the remaining surges to address any other interlock deficiencies.
Wiedefeld added that if he had been aware of the conditions at the derailment site, WMATA would have included the crossover in the surge work there. WMATA has rebutted NTSB claims that the transit agency was aware of deteriorating conditions at the derailment area in 2009.
Wiedefeld declined to discuss the issue in detail, citing the agency’s ongoing internal investigation of the derailment. But he did concede, “I wish I could snap my fingers and we’d all be on the same page at the same time.”
Transforming WMATA’s safety culture has been one of Wiedefeld’s top priorities since he joined the agency last November, but infrastructure-management problems continue to emerge. The latest examples were identified in a Federal Transit Administration report, issued on Aug. 8, on track inspection and maintenance.
FTA has handled safety oversight of Metrorail for nearly two years and continues in that role until the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia can set up a new regional oversight agency.
FTA’s investigation faulted WMATA for inconsistencies in inspection and maintenance practices, an understaffed, undertrained inspection team, and numerous track maintenance and construction-quality shortcomings, including incorrectly installed track anchor bolts and pervasive problems with tunnel drainage systems.
FTA acknowledged WMATA’s progress in addressing previously identified deficiencies, but it issued 12 required actions, including hiring more inspectors and providing more comprehensive training. FTA also called for WMATA to make greater use of its Training Gauge Vehicle, which can automatically perform geometric and ultrasonic tests on the tracks.
Wiedefeld said that none of the issues the FTA report raised was new and that WMATA already had taken steps to address them. In his briefing, Wiedefeld also said the agency hired Mott MacDonald to perform a complete asset inventory to review all track conditions and produce a new track and structures inspection and maintenance manual. WMATA said the inventory contract was awarded in July, and the contract for the inspection and maintenance manual was awarded in August.
WMATA also will overhaul its track inspection training program and team with the University of Tennessee Center for Transportation Research on an intensive two-week training program to help its inspectors better identify and categorize track defects.
Wiedenfeld noted that WMATA’s efforts to foster organization-wide cultural change will be a long, evolving process. “It takes time, but it is underway,” he said.
It also will take millions of dollars from a system with no dedicated local funding source. WMATA plans to issue a cost estimate for SafeTrack in September. Earlier published reports have cited a figure of $60 million.
The agency has implied that it may ask the local jurisdictions it serves and the federal government to increase their annual contributions to the system’s operation by tens of millions of dollars.
Meanwhile, House Committee on Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Calif.), the panel’s top Democrat—Elijah Cummings (Md.)—and four other committee members have asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to audit the Metrorail safety and maintenance program.
In their July 18 letter to GAO, the lawmakers also asked it to assess whether the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)—not FTA—might be the more appropriate federal oversight agency for Metrorail until the regional board is in place and fully operational.
NTSB has repeatedly recommended transferring Metrorail oversight to FRA.