Metro Safety Report: Power System Continues to Suffer From Lack of Basics

WASHINGTON — The deep-seated problems with Metro’s power system stem from a lack of follow-through on fixes, and failures in communications, basic design, cleaning and inspection, an internal safety report finds.

A summary of the draft traction power systems report, to be provided to the Metro Board Safety Committee Thursday, notes that even the information that could lead Metro to the right fixes is “not always available or useful to those who need it for analysis and decision making.”

The problems are exacerbated by an “inadequate” number of “formally trained and experienced cable inspection crews” and a lack of training for other inspectors on how to identify problems with the power system.

Even high-tech thermal imaging data are not reviewed by all the people who might be able to note current or impending problems, and programs that had been suggested or started to mitigate problems “were often not fully implemented or resources dedicated to the programs were not sufficient to be fully effective.”

The report also comes closer than ever before to acknowledging that the so-called “orange boot” power connection system, which in the past did not always include proper seals, needs to be re-examined going forward. Outside experts recently questioned the system, and the National Transportation Safety Board partly blamed water or dirt compromising the protective assembly for Carol Glover’s death last year outside L’Enfant Plaza.

Metro’s new internal review calls the design “adequate and appropriate for the system,” but notes that it “is potentially a point of failure that can be eliminated during new construction.”

Creating a single entity within Metro responsible for all rail power systems is among the 32 recommendations across five broad areas included in the draft report, which has now been submitted to the Federal Transit Administration for review.

In some cases, the recommendations mirror external reviews or safety directives from the Federal Transit Administration.

The report concludes that Metro may have committed a major miscalculation when looking at the power upgrades required to safely run more eight-car trains. The calculations “may not have considered the actual condition” of cables that handle the secondary impacts of increased power draw such as automatic train control systems.

Overall, the report finds those “secondary cables” are “not satisfactorily address[ed]” in replacement work.

In many cases, though, the report finds Metro’s power problems could be greatly reduced by simply cleaning up tunnels, cables and insulators.

“Established insulator cleaning schedule is not adhered to, predominantly due to staffing issues,” the summary of the report says.

Dirtier insulators are more likely to end up providing a path to the ground for electricity, which is the cause of many arcing incidents but also long-term maintenance problems.

The insulators themselves have problems too, with design specifications that do not include the best industry standards for quality control, shipping and testing. The report finds Metro has “insufficient” practices to make sure insulators are up to the quality standards it wants, and there are no guidelines for Metro workers to make sure insulators are not damaged on the way to a work site.

A new insulator design could help Metro replace more of them, the report suggests, if the insulators were easier to slide in and out from under the third rail. It’s not clear how often insulators should be replaced across the system since Metro does not have any specific projections for how long insulators might last in different environments, such as tunnels or open areas above ground.

The process of cleaning up other debris on the tracks that can cause smoke or fire incidents has been hampered by Metro’s vacuum vehicle being out of service. Metro’s safety department suggests a cost-benefit analysis on whether repairing or replacing the vehicle is worth it.

Track crews dedicated to cleaning out drains to clear water from power cables and structures have shown some success on the Red Line between Van Ness and Bethesda, but the department recommends even more dedicated cleaning crews “to improve safety [and] reliability and improve the longevity of system assets.”

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