Metro: What We Have Here Is A Failure To Communicate

Since Saturday is Unofficial Rant About the D.C. Metro day, we bring you this heartwarming tale about Metro’s spectacular performance. HA! We make the funny (boldface mine):

It was May 6. More than 100 Metro track workers and inspectors gathered near Bethesda station. They had a scheduled five-hour window in the middle of the day to conduct crucial, uninterrupted work on the outbound side of the tracks, and they came ready — accompanied by four prime movers and an oversight agent from the Federal Transit Administration.

Just after 10 a.m. — the end of morning rush hour — the team radioed to Metro’s Rail Operations Control Center and asked for permission to step onto the tracks and get started.

And then they waited.

And waited.

And waited.

In an episode that was later described by an FTA inspector as a “tremendous waste of resources,” those dozens of workers stood immobile on the side of the tracks for more than two hours — delayed, it turned out, by radio communications issues with the ROCC.

By the time they finally got hold of an official in the command center, they had used up more than half of their allotted maintenance time on the tracks.

…it’s a painfully clear example of one of Metro’s most significant problems: Unreliable communication with the command center, known as the “nerve center” for all of Metro’s daily rail operations, where controllers and dispatchers dole out instructions to train operators, track inspectors and maintenance workers.

The command center has been a main focus of criticism by the federal government: Poor communication within the ROCC was cited as one of the reasons for the confusion and delayed emergency response during last year’s deadly L’Enfant Plaza smoke incident.

And just last month, a packed train was stuck in a Red Line tunnel for so long that two people self-evacuated onto the tracks — an incident that was caused largely by the fact that the ROCC failed to change a signal along the tracks, and then failed to get in contact with the train’s operator over the radio.

It’s so bad that there are parts of the Metro system that can’t ever contact the command center (boldface mine):

One issue that comes up multiple times in the reports is bad radio coverage—or a total lack of it—at some spots on Metro property. Inspectors noted two in particular: West Falls Church Yard and Greenbelt Yard, where trains are made, maintained, and dispatched for daily service.

During one inspection at Greenbelt in February 2016, the FTA inspectors noted that the yard’s interlocking operator (who controls the yard track and switches) and train operators (who come to the yard to inspect and take trains out for passenger service) developed a “work-around” for dead spots: using their personal cell phones to call the other in order to relay information—that’s a problem because operators are supposed to have their phones out of reach whenever at work to reduce chances of distraction.

If a cell phone wasn’t available, the train operator might have to exit the train and use one of the Emergency Trip Stations located next to the track in order to get in contact with the interlocking operator.

This is nothing new either. But did Metro leadership ever do anything about it? Of course not (fire anyone who was on the board before 2014 or so–awful oversight).

It’s not just a safety issue either. A while ago, I cast some doubt on the amount of time Metro claims it needs to conduct routine maintenance:

Metro is asking for far more time for routine repairs than other mass transit systems require… Given how laughable many of Metro’s operating procedures are, one must believe Metro could maintain the system more efficiently.

I’m not the only one thinking this:

And episodes of apparent wasted time like this one are exactly why Metro has received some pushback from members of the agency’s board when it comes to General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld’s proposal to permanently end late-night service. Wiedefeld wants to provide more time for work crews to conduct repairs and perform inspections in the middle of the night.

Wiedefeld has argued that a key reason for Metro’s infrastructure problems is the fact that undisturbed maintenance time on the tracks has been whittled down over the years: In 1998, Metro had 43.5 hours per week to conduct inspections and repairs; when they introduced late-night service, that amount of time had diminished to 33 hours. Since the start of SafeTrack, Metro has increased the amount of weekly maintenance time to 39 hours. Wiedefeld wants to increase that weekly allotment to 41 hours.

But some board members, including Leif A. Dormsjo, director of the District Department of Transportation, have asked whether Metro needs to take better advantage of the time it already has.

Are we locking in inefficiencies?” Dormsjo asked at a meeting last month. He later added that he won’t support a plan for late-night service cuts until he receives “more proof that the additional eight hours is absolutely necessary.”

…But to tackle the problem of wasted track time, Metro will need to solve radio communication problems. The long periods of radio silence are only one of Metro’s communications problems, as outlined by the hundreds of the recently-released inspection reports: In recent months, federal inspectors noted that many of the messages they hear during ROCC inspections are garbled, indecipherable, too quiet, or overlap with other messages.

A failure to communicate indeed.

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