WASHINGTON— A Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority spokesperson said Tuesday General Manager Paul Wiedefeld will delay releasing the finalized version of his year-long “SafeTrack” plan because he needed extra time to consider and incorporate unexpected requirements by the Federal Transit Administration.
A safety directive from the FTA requires that trains run at reduced speeds on certain sections of track. Complying with this directive reduces amperage in order to lower the risk of smoke and fire in the tunnels. WMATA said Monday afternoon that since Wednesday, Red Line trains between Grosvenor and Dupont Circle stations; between Rosslyn and Minnesota Avenue Stations on the Orange Line; and between Silver/Blue stations Rosslyn and Benning Road have been running at reduced speed of 45 mph and speed up at slower rates to reduce power draw.
WMATA spokesperson Morgan Dye said Metro has not determined how long the restrictions will be in place, but it should not impact service because the restrictions should be decreasing speeds by 10 miles per hour. “Normal speed limits can vary up to 55 mph; however, it’s rare for trains to need to go above 45 mph in the core, which is why that restriction in and of itself should not affect schedules or cause delays,” said Dye.
According to a Metro news release, “These restrictions should not have a significant effect on service unless there is a service issue (e.g. train offload, mechanical problem, etc.) on the line.” However, service issues have been occurring with Metrorail on a daily basis.
The FTA’s acting administrator Carolyn Flowers sent a letter to Wiedefeld May 11 instructing him to hold off on releasing the “SafeTrack” plan until WMATA completed a list of urgent repairs in three sections of track. If these repairs were not done, Flowers threatened to reduce WMATA’s funding.
FTA inspectors determined presence of risks of smoke and fire and to rider safety, said Flowers. For Red Line stations Medical Center to Van Ness and Blue/Orange/Silver line stations Potomac Avenue to D&G Junction, Flowers ordered various projects including cleaning drains and troughs, inspecting and repairing drainage pumps, clearing mud from tracks and walkways and sealing cracks where water may be leaking into the tunnels; and replacing corroded rail and defective rail tie plates.
Those projects are already occurring between Red Line stations Medical Center and Friendship Heights. Flowers acknowledged this in the letter, then told Metro to extend this work on both Red Line tracks up to Van Ness Station, and also perform it in the Blue/Orange/Silver line stations previously mentioned.
Wiedefeld had already addressed parts of the letter when he announced the proposed SafeTrack plan. Some issues had been included; others he planned to address immediately before the start of the planned projects. Metro spokesperson Dan Stessel said that Wiedefeld planned for all porcelain insulators to the third rail to be removed from underground stations in June, a repair that was also was included in Flowers’ letter. Wiedefeld directed that, by the end of May, Metro would follow the National Transportation Safety Board’s recommendation to install sealing sleeves to all underground power cables, which NTSB believed to be a contributing factor to the L’Enfant smoke incident of 2015.
Flowers stated that the repairs at Orange/Silver line stations Ballston-MU to East Falls Church would focus on electrical power, to include replacement of sections of the third rail and inspections and repairs to traction power cables. She added the section is not compliant with WMATA drainage and pumping standards. WMATA employees would have to inspect those stations and schedule that section for priority repairs.
Wiedefeld revised his estimate at headquarters Thursday and said it might take him a week or more to incorporate recommendations from the FTA and the three jurisdictions, after saying when he presented the drafted plan that he would release the final version Monday. He answered questions from reporters after Metro Board committee meetings Thursday May 12 by saying he is reviewing comments from stakeholders and working on revisions to the proposed plan.
One of the immediate causes for the directive was FTA’s determination that Metro staff poorly handled an arcing insulator incident at Federal Center May 5. FTA spokesperson Steven Kulm confirmed that Metro’s poor handling of the Federal Center incidents led to the directive.
The FTA directive, issued four days prior to the letter, focused on improving employee emergency response and preparedness for safety incidents, and prevention of smoke and fire risks in the system. Wiedefeld on Thursday responded to some parts of the directive but not others. He had restricted train speeds in some sections of track starting May 11. He did not specify where trains were running at reduced speeds until Monday, three business days after he ordered the speed and acceleration restrictions.
Rockville resident Sean Webb said the “SafeTrack” plan is “too late.” He said Metro should have been in better repair so that the fatal L’Enfant Plaza smoke incident in January 2015 could have been prevented.
Webb said he didn’t know about the FTA letter delaying the “SafeTrack” plan, but responded that it seemed to him Metro overlooked the most important part of Metro repairs.
“They have to do two things to fix the biggest thing,” said Webb of Metro staff addressing smoke and fire mitigation.
“Who was in charge? Who didn’t (care for) that thing in the past?” he added.
Wiedefeld on Thursday would not say whether he thought Metro would have to run all six-car trains to reduce power usage in the system, as was recommended in the FTA safety directive to reduce smoke and fire hazards. A reporter asked if Wiedefeld would be able to safely continue to run eight-car trains.
“We’re going to take a look at all the suggestions we’ve gotten from everyone,” Wiedefeld answered.
Wiedefeld said he would organize a stand-down of WMATA staff about safety, which was included in the directive, in the form of a two-hour training session. However, he declined to say whether he would move up the track projects required by the FTA, adding he was looking at all the comments and feedback on the plan. Wiedefeld said he would discuss with the FTA his drafted year-long safety and reliability track plan, along with the FTA’s directive and Flowers’ letter.
Moving those three projects up would likely delay projects included in his drafted plan.
Since taking over Metro safety oversight, FTA issued its third safety directive to Wiedefeld May 7. Metro spokesperson Dan Stessel said Wiedefeld did not know the FTA directive was on its way when he presented his drafted safety plan on May 6.
“While the draft “SafeTrack” plan issued by Metro GM Wiedefeld last week was based on the professional judgement of engineers with a priority on safety, the FTA has directed Metro to make changes. As such, the draft plan will be modified,” said Stessel.
Wiedefeld said he and U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx support the same mission: to improve safety. Wiedefeld said Thursday he thought Foxx would tell him before ordering a shutdown of the system.
Board member Michael Goldman said he did not think the all-six-car-trains idea would be possible due to the amount of people crowding on platforms now– when eight-car trains continue to transport passengers back and forth.
Using only “Six car (trains) I think is a terrible idea,” said Goldman on Thursday.
Goldman said the Red Line platforms at times become crowded to the point of being unsafe, such as during rush hour. To eliminate eight-car trains would increase the hazard of crowded platforms, he said.