Congress grills Metro managers on ills
WASHINGTON – Members of Congress pointed fingers at witnesses called to testify about Metro’s SafeTrack program Friday, including a federal safety official, Metro’s board chairman and a Metro union representative.
“How many more people have to die before we get you to act?” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) asked Federal Transit Administration Executive Director Matthew Welbes.
Meadows, The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and subcommittees on Transportation and Public Assets and Government Relation hosted the hearing.
who chairs the government operatives subcommittee, repeatedly asked Welbes who was to blame for Metro’s safety problems, including the July derailment of a Silver Line train near East Falls Church station, which resulted in three people suffering minor injuries.
“Whose. Fault. Is it?” he asked.
Welbes said the FTA’s functions as Metro’s safety oversight agency has limited the administration’s ability spur improvement in Metro safety.
“FTA’s lack of authority has contributed to the (derailment),” Welbes said.
“So are you at fault?” Meadows interjected.
“Sure, sir,” Welbes answered in a soft voice.
Meadows told Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld he supported him for making unpopular choices for safety.
“I want to thank you for your work,” Meadows said.
Later on, he asked about Wiedefeld’s maintenance program.
“Do you believe SafeTrack is improving safety for riders?” he asked.
“I do for the above-ground portion of the system,” Wiedefeld replied.
On the committee’s schedule, the summary of the hearing included reviewing the accountability of Metro during SafeTrack,
However, committee member Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) introduced the hearing as focusing on Metro’s viability.
“The purpose of the hearing today is to examine whether or not Metro has stepped back from the precipice of total disaster, whether and how the system can set a trajectory for safe, reliable and sustainable operations,” Connolly said.
Connolly accused the Metro board of being ineffective as a group and singled out Metro’s board chairman.
“The enduring leadership crisis of Metro resides in the WMATA Board of Directors,” Connolly said. “Some board members seem bent on proving that the governing body is wholly incapable of resuscitation and, much less, managing Metro.”
He spent several minutes criticizing remarks by Metro Board member Corbett Price, who represents the District of Columbia.
Price had said he believed Metro might need to cancel the Silver Line extension due to financial problems. Connolly directed his criticism to Evans.
“Threats to scrap a major expansion of Metro to Dulles International Airport pit jurisdiction against jurisdiction and fracture any hope for the true regionalism necessary for Metro’s success,” Connolly told Evans, with his voice volume elevated.
Although Wiedefeld and National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Chris Hart also spoke at the hearing, representatives from a committee and two subcommittees directed most of the harsh questions to Welbes and Metro Board Chairman and D.C. Council member Jack Evans.
Meadows blamed the FTA for part of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s failures. He allotted the FTA 30 days to create a new plan to make Metro safe.
Meadows pointed out the hearing marked Metro’s fourth congressional hearing in less than two years. He mentioned the urgency of addressing Metro issue.
“WMATA is not a fine wine; it does not improve with time,” Meadows said. “What we must do is we must act today.”
He said he’s been waiting to see Metro become safe since the FTA took over as Metro’s safety oversight agency last year.
The National Transportation Safety Board released transcripts of WMATA rail inspectors the night before the hearing, which detailed how inspectors knew about the tracks near East Falls Church Metro being too far apart, the problem FTA said caused the derailment.
It also included a section about how some inspectors have pre-filled out inspection reports, saying the tracks were in better shape than in reality.
Connolly mentioned the reports during his introduction.
“Indeed, NTSB found clear evidence that Metro safety inspectors deliberately falsified their reports – endangering public safety once again,” he said.
Connolly asked Raymond Jackson, executive vice president of Metro union Amalgamated Transit Union-Local 689,
whether he believed workers who falsify reports should be fired.
Jackson attributed union members’ falsifying reports to Metro management culture. He said he would never recommend firing members of Local 689.
“I’m never going to recommend firing our employees,” Jackson said. “If it was their intent to falsify the documents, then I will.”
Jackson said the supervisors of track workers are asking inspectors to conduct inspections in too little time, preventing the workers from being able to inspect thoroughly.
The NTSB reported earlier this year falsified reports also led to death of a woman and injuries to several other riders during the smoke incident near L’Enfant Plaza station in January 2015.
The joint committee rehashed some of this year’s worst safety incidents, including a train running off the rails, broken rail parts and rail fires, riders self-evacuating to the tracks and a train operator exceeding a speed limit and nearly hitting two inspectors.