Maryland and Virginia’s four senators reprimanded Metro on Thursday, citing the release of a scathing audit earlier this month that detailed long-standing and unaddressed problems that have resurfaced within the transit agency’s rail control center.
Maryland U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, both Democrats, and Virginia’s Democratic Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine, said they had met virtually with Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld this week and were debriefed on the results of an audit that identified 21 safety failures or workplace issues within the agency’s Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC). In a joint statement, the senators said the issues within the ROCC are “detrimental to the safety of all who depend on Metrorail and are wholly unacceptable.”
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The 50-page audit, conducted by the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, the independent agency that oversees Metrorail safety, described the ROCC as a stressful workplace riven with sexual and racial harassment, overworked and understaffed controllers, managers who eschew safety standards, and communication problems that have led to first responders being delayed during emergencies.
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Most of the problems are not new, and had been cited by the Federal Transit Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board in the aftermath of calamities such as a 2015 tunnel fire outside L’Enfant Plaza that engulfed a rail car, killing one passenger and injuring several others, and in a 2009 crash of Red Line trains that killed nine people. Repeatedly, Metro has been ordered to fix communication issues, create and stick to emergency plans and checklists, and better train employees for emergencies. But the transit agency has left many of the tasks incomplete, auditors said.
The audit and the recurring issues have perplexed Metro board members, and it has led to management shake-ups within the ROCC. Lisa Woodruff, senior vice president for rail transportation, has been reassigned while an outside law firm conducts an investigation into the audit’s claims, including that she told employees to mislead safety commission investigators.
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Metro also removed the ROCC from the supervision of Joseph Leader, the transit agency’s chief operating officer of four years. ROCC director Deltrin Harris was reassigned in June, amid the commission’s investigation.
The commission has given Metro until Oct. 23 to submit corrective action plans for 21 of 25 issues highlighted in the audit. Metro has already submitted or is close to submitting plans for the other four, safety commission officials said.
The senators said they found it “troubling” that some of the problems remain unresolved years later, and that “they have been allowed to persist without a sufficient, effective response,” the statement said.
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“The challenge now before WMATA’s leadership is not only to fix the disturbing issues within the ROCC, but to demonstrate that its management team has the capability to implement meaningful, lasting improvements in organizational culture and safety,” the senators said. “We will be following its performance closely.”
Metro officials on Thursday told board members they’re in the process of better clarifying and outlining leadership roles and responsibilities from board members on down when it came to monitoring safety with the creation of a “safety management system.”
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Among the many fixes they are working on, they said, is improving how employees can make safety complaints or concerns. The audit had stated that some employees had stopped bringing up safety issues because Metro had a culture that downplayed or ignored them.
“We are expanding these safety reporting channels and improving them,” Metro Chief Safety Officer Theresa M. Impastato said.