DC Transit System Plans Massive Repairs

The new SafeTrack plan is intended to catch up with much-needed and overdue maintenance as quickly as possible. "We have to begin by understanding that safety trumps inconvenience," said Paul J. Wiedefeld, WMATA's general manager and CEO.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's general manager and CEO, Paul J. Wiedefeld, released a plan named SafeTrack on May 6, a one-year work plan meant to catch up as quickly as possible with maintenance demands that exist throughout the transit system that serves Washington, D.C., and some surrounding cities. WMATA said SafeTrack includes 15 "safety surges" over the next year that will accelerate maintenance and, by closing the system at midnight on weekends and expanding weekday maintenance time, it addresses Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and NTSB safety recommendations and deferred maintenance backlogs while restoring track infrastructure.

"SafeTrack accomplishes in one year, work that otherwise would take about three years to complete," according to the agency. The "safety surges" aim to allow track crews to increase productivity significantly -- they are long-duration track outages that will affect rush-hour commutes, so that the agency is asking rail commuters to consider using alternate travel options during them.

Wiedefeld also said the Metrorail system will stop at midnight seven days a week starting Friday, June 3. "This plan is going to take some sacrifice from all of us," he said, "but it is clear that the current approach is not working, more aggressive action is necessary."

WMATA also said, after review and consideration of traffic mitigation and alternate travel options by DOT agencies in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia, regional law enforcement, and the federal Office of Personnel Management, Department of Homeland Security, and General Services Administration, a final version of SafeTrack will be released for riders on May 16. "Metro's safety culture change depends on support from the entire region," Wiedefeld said. "We have to begin by understanding that safety trumps inconvenience."

The pressure from FTA to improve has been high for some time and continues to increase. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx on April 28 announced the appointment of three new federal representatives, effective June 1, to WMATA's board of directors, touting their extensive transportation safety experience. Two are new Principal Directors with voting authority: Carol Carmody, former vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, and David Strickland, former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The incoming Alternate Director will be Robert Lauby, chief safety officer of the Federal Railroad Administration. "Building a safety culture is not easy and requires relentless focus at every level. These three new federal members will build on our promise to bring a laser-like focus on making the transit system of our nation's capital as safe as possible," Foxx said. "All three of the outgoing board members, Mort Downey, Harriet Tregoning, and Anthony Giancola, have provided excellent service on the WMATA board, and we thank them for bringing such great commitment to guiding WMATA through serious and complicated issues over the last few years."

And Robert McCartney of The Washington Post reported May 7 that FRA, citing WMATA's botched response to a May 5 fire at the Federal Center SW station, issued emergency directives May 7 to WMATA and threatened to shut down all or parts of its rail operation. "In its toughest measures since it took over direct safety oversight of Metro in October, the FTA ordered daily inspections for 'hot spots' and water leaks along tracks, as well as reductions in the number of railcars in service and slower speeds for trains so less power is used. It also demanded a 'safety stand-down' so that all Metro staffers can be retrained in proper procedures. The training must be completed by May 16," McCartney reported.

On May 3, the National Transportation Safety Board adopted a report finding that a short circuit on the Metrorail system that caused thick smoke to fill a stranded train, killing one passenger and injuring 91 people, on Jan. 12, 2015, resulted from WMATA's failure to follow its own safety procedures and inadequate safety oversight by the Tri-State Oversight Committee and FTA. "From WMATA's lack of certain safety procedures and its deviation from established ones, this accident reveals a compromised safety system and a dysfunctional organizational culture," said NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart.

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