FTA Orders Safety Stand Down for Metro After Third Rail Explosion

The Federal Transit Administration slammed the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority for its lack of urgency and safety after a third rail insulator explosion at the Federal Center Southwest Station on Thursday.

Stating there is “significant concerns about the overall safety of the system,” the FTA has directed Metro to take steps immediately to correct what the agency calls “persistent critical safety findings.” The directive was issued Saturday, May 7 by Acting Administrator Carolyn Flowers.

The FTA said Metro’s staff and employees are not following critical safety policies and procedures, and they are not effectively balancing safety-critical operations and maintenance with the demand for passenger service. The agency told Metro it needs to make sure that decisions are made based on safety and not operational convenience.

The main focus of the directive dealt with the explosion at the Federal Center Southwest Station that was captured on surveillance video. The FTA’s tone in the directive was chastising, pointing out that Metro failed on many levels to respond to the explosion in a timely manner, to notify the FTA, per protocol, to allow maintenance crews to inspect the explosion area until several hours later and permitted trains to continue through the “potentially dangerous track without interruption.”

The FTA said Metro only closed the area after a second fire and smoke incident at the same station later in the same day. They said the multiple failures demonstrate “significant safety lapses by the (Rail Operations Control Center).”

They also point out that increased demands for passenger service has lessened the amount of time Metro has to perform inspections, testing and maintenance. They point out Metro has thousands of backlogged work orders, some dating back to 2012 and 2013.

The FTA has directed Metro to take immediate action in four areas to correct the issues.

They want Metro to make decisions based on safety rather than passenger and operational convenience. They also want the transit agency to mitigate fire and smoke risk, including reducing the length of trains and slowing trains down to lessen the draw of electricity.

Metro is also ordered to conduct a safety stand-down to ensure all staff and employees understand the rules and procedures related to emergencies, inspections and passenger evacuations. They have also been ordered to conduct drills in order to test response times for emergencies.

Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld detailed his "SafeTrack" plan Friday at a news conference, which will close the system at midnight every day, implement continuous single-tracking and shut down parts of the rail line for the next year.

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