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Rail News: Safety

FTA demands WMATA take immediate action to address emergency preparedness


By Daniel Niepow, Associate Editor

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) on Saturday threatened to withhold funding for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) and shut down service if the D.C.-area transit agency fails to take immediate action to address persistent safety deficiencies.

In a May 7 safety directive, the FTA spelled out specific steps WMATA must take to bolster planning, exercises, testing and readiness for emergencies.

The FTA's latest directive follows the transit agency's "slow and inadequate" response to two recent smoke and fire incidents. In the aftermath of a May 5 fire incident, for instance, WMATA failed to notify the FTA of the event as required by established protocol. In addition, an operations supervisor at the scene performed only a "cursory inspection" before ordering the damaged track back into service, according to the FTA.

Video: Washington Post

"Supervision at all levels of Metrorail operations must ensure that decision-making is made on the basis of safety and not operational convenience," FTA officials wrote in the directive. "All employees will receive training on the primacy of safety in Metrorail operations."

WMATA's staff must complete the training by May 16. In addition, WMATA must conduct immediate and ongoing rail-car infrared testing during peak load times to identify traction power "hot spots" on the third-rail system. The agency then must initiate immediate repairs at these locations, the FTA ordered.

The safety directive also orders WMATA to improve emergency planning and preparedness procedures through training drills.

Finally, WMATA must conduct a "safety stand-down" to ensure that management, supervisors, roadway workers and controllers understand all applicable WMATA and FTA requirements for safe operations.

As part of the stand-down, WMATA must complete an "after action review" of the May 5 Federal Center station arc flash incidents; review with all operating personnel, supervisors and management procedures related to managing fire and smoke emergencies; and ensure that all Metrorail supervisors and employees who inspect track have reviewed all polices and procedures.

WMATA also needs to implement "immediate mitigations" to reduce amperage draw in high risk areas. Mitigations could include reducing train lengths, turning off regenerative braking to reduce power being introduced into the system, and reducing acceleration speed to draw less current.

If WMATA fails to comply with all the actions spelled out in the directive, the FTA could withhold up to 25 percent of the agency's financial assistance and shut down service as necessary to address unsafe conditions.

News of the FTA's safety directive came a day after WMATA General Manager and Chief Paul Wiedefeld released a track work plan aimed at improving the agency's rail safety and restoring service reliability.

Known as "SafeTrack," the plan includes 15 "safety surges" over the next year that will involve long-duration track outages. During the shutdowns, crews will either work around the clock on single tracks or on entire line segments, WMATA officials said in a press release.

The line segment shutdowns will last no longer than a month.

Due to an accelerated work schedule, the plan will allow the agency to accomplish three years worth of work in about a year, WMATA officials said.

In addition, there will be a moratorium on early openings and late closings, with Metrorail closing at midnight seven days a week beginning June 3. Maintenance crews also will start work at 8 p.m. on weeknights.

Specific tasks include replacing 12,000 insulators, 48,000 wood ties and 36,000 direct fixation fasteners, along with removing third rail expansion joints in the underground system.

Crews also will focus on debris clearing, tunnel washing, rail renewal and interlocking maintenance.

"This plan is going to take some sacrifice from all of us," Wiedefeld said. "But it is clear that the current approach is not working, more aggressive action is necessary."

Following a review and consideration of traffic mitigation and alternate travel options, WMATA will release a final version of SafeTrack on May 16.

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

More News from 5/9/2016