WASHINGTON — Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority crews and contractors shut down several Red Line stations the weekend of Dec. 16 and 17 to replace a failing communications cable that posed a serious safety risk.
WMATA Chief Operating Officer Joe Leader said on Thursday that the decision to replace the cable was made after the new general superintendent in charge of Automatic Train Control requested an audit of non-traction power cable inspection records and after Leader recommended to General Manager Paul Wiedefeld that WMATA replace the cable after it was found during an inspection this week to not meet Metro specifications, though inspectors did not determine a reason for the cable’s failure.
“The decision was made on Tuesday not to try and pinpoint where the failure might be or what might be causing the failure… just replace the cable,” Leader said.
The cable in question was originally inspected between 2015 and January 2017.
“The new general superintendent was looking at the processes that were in place in his area, and requested the data,” Leader said.
Based on the audit results, Metro officials chose to retest a handful of communications cables for which maintenance records were missing, Leader said.
“The last three cables when we tested – we assume some remedial action was taken at that time, but we don’t know what that was because there was insufficient documentation,” Metro Safety Chief Pat Lavin said. “Which is why we retested all of the cables (of the six). When we retested those last two, those were the ones that failed.”
If the cables failed to function, Metro’s Rail Operations Control Center (which monitors train movement centrally) would risk not being able to detect the location of trains, and train operators would be at risk of receiving incorrect train speed readings. If Wiedefeld had waited longer to order the replacement, the cable would have become even more worn, risking a train crashing into another train.
“Those are the things that could happen but didn’t happen,” Leader said. “We know that we have to replace the cable.”
Metro officials gave riders about five days’ notice of the all-weekend shutdown occurring, but Silver Spring resident Chris Tessone complained that this isn’t the first time Metro gave riders insufficient notice of a disruptive capital project.
“They routinely spring things on riders in a way that’s really irresponsible,” he said.
Tessone said he and his family have stopped using Metrorail as a means of weekend transportation due to its unreliability.
During the days leading up to the replacement, Metro officials increased headways, or times between trains, on the Red Line as a precaution since inspectors did not track down the source of testing failure.
Lavin and Leader said employees and contractors are replacing the cable now, rather than waiting for it to fail during train operations, as a preventative measure.
“We know that when we tested it, that the cable did not meet the specifications that we want,” Leader said, later adding, “And now we’re replacing the cable, but we had no indication that there was an ongoing failure on, you know, that it wasn’t performing.”
On the retest results, Lavin said, “It’s below our threshold of what’s acceptable.”