Metro says it won’t cut service after all, following dispute with safety watchdog over training
Metro said Monday afternoon it will not reduce service Tuesday after it said a safety watchdog agreed to delay an order pulling some train operators from out of service for additional training.
UPDATE Jan. 16, 2023, 3:30 p.m.: Metro said Monday afternoon it will not reduce service Tuesday after it said a safety watchdog agreed to delay an order pulling some train operators from out of service for additional training.
In a brief a statement, Metro said the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission had agreed to “stay their directive related to rail operator training.”
EARLIER: 1:50 p.m.
Some Metro riders will face longer waits for trains this week, after the transit agency’s independent safety watchdog ordered Metro to pull more than 50 train operators from service, saying they need more training.
Wait times for riders on the Blue, Orange and Silver Lines will increase from every 15 minutes to 25 minutes starting Tuesday and lasting through the end of the week and possibly longer, Metro announced.
Metro says it has to cut service to comply with a Wednesday morning deadline to retrain operators.
In a separate directive, the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission also ordered Metro to pause a plan to reduce inspections of the transit agency’s 7000-series cars that would have allowed Metro to return more of them to the rails and improve service levels.
During an online media briefing Monday, Metro General Manager Randy Clarke said he and the Metro board “fundamentally disagree” with both safety directives, which he said “unfairly and unnecessarily impact our ability” to provide service “without adding any safety improvement.”
However, he said the transit agency would comply with both orders for now, “as I will not put our customers in the middle of a bureaucratic process that fundamentally does not enhance their safety.”
The Metro chief said the halt to its 7000-series plans means Metro service levels will not improve “for the foreseeable future,” adding, “and by foreseeable I mean months, not weeks.”
As it relates to training, the safety commission said in a memo last week it had discovered Metro was “deliberately ignoring” its own training standards, allowing operators to skip a required eight hours of initial hands-on training overseen by instructors on out-of-service trains. (Citing the ongoing 7000-series train shortage, Metro says it added those eight hours of training to the 30 hours of training that operators have to perform with instructors on passenger trains).
Metro officials acknowledged Monday the decision to “adjust the training” was never communicated to the safety commission, but Metro Safety Chief Theresa Impastato told reporters she wasn’t sure if Metro was required to communicate the change or whether the safety commission was required to sign off on the move.
Metro to petition safety watchdog to drop orders
Metro’s forceful pushback Monday against the safety directives bring a long-simmering dispute between the transit agency and its independent safety regulator into public view.
During the briefing, Metro Board Chairman Paul Smedberg said Metro will formally petition the safety commission to rescind its directives.
“Let me say clearly, safety is an absolute core value for Metro full stop,” Smedberg said. “However, we are exasperated with directives that are not based on risk analysis or facts and disrupt service for our customers without adding anything to rail operations safely.”
Smedberg also called for leaders in D.C., Maryland and Virginia to step in and “mediate” between Metro and the safety commission.
“The Board and staff are fully supportive of an independent safety oversight body,” Smedberg said. “However, the relationship between the WMSC and Metro is structurally untenable, and does not advance the region’s mission of providing safe, reliable rail service.”
Dispute over training
The Metro safety commission said it learned of the skipped training as it investigated a Dec. 6 incident in which an operator ran past a red signal. That operator had completed only nine minutes of the eight hours of initial training, according to records cited by the safety commission.
Another operator involved in a train overrun at Dunn Loring station on Dec. 31 stated they had not had any training in initial hands-on training on non-passenger trains.
The safety commission said it’s concerned that Metro isn’t making trains available for operator training because of the railcar crunch.
“The WMSC is concerned that Metrorail may be progressing untrained operators and preventing trainees from getting necessary training due to pressures to operate scheduled service, rather than based on a demonstration of their ability to operate safely or Metrorail’s ability to operate that scheduled service safely,” the commission said in the memo.
Clarke, the Metro GM, said the transit agency can safely skip the eight hours of initial hands’-on training, since those hours are added back in when operators progress to hands-on training with instructors on passenger rail cars.
All 54 operators who will undergo additional training this week have already completed the necessary total number of hours, passed written exams and were certified to operate trains, Clarke said.
Still, officials acknowledged they left the safety commission in the dark about the change.
Impastato, the Metro safety official, said there was no “deliberate attempt to obfuscate the change that was being made” and that it had been discussed during informal meetings “over many months.” But she said the decision to move forward with the change was “not formally documented and that is something WMATA needs to address.”
She said she wasn’t sure if Metro was required to provide notice of the change. “But I do believe as part of the spirit of trust and transparency, that WMATA should have notified the safety commission of this change.”
In the memo last week, safety commission officials said they learned last fall that Metro “was attempting to reduce hands-on operator training” and raised questions about the plan. According to the memo, the safety commission met with leadership in Metro’s Operation division, during which “Metrorail stated t would not make that change.”
Impastato said she was not involved in any discussions with the safety commission about changing training requirements.
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