Metro fires six after derailment probe finds that inspectors falsified records
Metro fired six workers after determining that nearly half of the agency’s 60-person track-inspection department created a pattern of fabrication and negligence that led to the derailment of a Silver Line train in July, the transit agency said Thursday.
The fired employees falsified track-inspection records for as long as three years, officials said. A criminal investigation ended without charges, but the findings of Metro’s internal review have been sent to prosecutors to decide whether to pursue other legal action.
Six more terminations or suspensions are pending and a total of 28 workers received disciplinary action, Metro said.
“This review revealed a disturbing level of indifference, lack of accountability and flagrant misconduct in a portion of Metro’s track department, which is completely intolerable,” Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said in a statement. “It is reprehensible that any supervisor or midlevel manager would tolerate or encourage this behavior, or seek to retaliate against those who objected.”
A Silver Line train derailed just outside the East Falls Church station in Virginia on July 29. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)
The review showing negligence and falsification represents the most damning indictment of Metro’s lack of safety culture since nine people died in a 2009 crash on the Red Line..
The National Transportation Safety Board and others have repeatedly faulted Metro for placing a lower priority on safety than on earning revenue by keeping the trains running. But evidence had not emerged that workers were involved in systematic efforts at deception that put riders’ lives at risk.
Wiedefeld’s decision to fire the workers and announce the discipline publicly also represents his highest-profile attempt to change Metro’s safety culture since he took over about a year ago.
The announcement came at the same meeting at which the Metro board of directors voted unanimously to cut late-night service hours for two years, starting in July. The vote came despite threats from D.C. board members to veto the proposal.
Evening hours on Metro already are curtailed because of the SafeTrack maintenance program. Metro’s new schedule will end service at 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, 11 p.m. on Sundays and 11:30 p.m. from Monday to Thursday. The decision is part of Metro’s larger effort to provide more time for track maintenance and inspection.
The late-night service decision and the internal negligence finding are emblematic of years of neglect at Metro — and the battle the transit agency faces to get to the backlog of maintenance needs.
Disciplinary action was not limited to rank-and-file workers. At least three supervisors were fired or are facing termination, and two more likely will be punished. Two rail superintendents were demoted. The review indicated that some workers may have feared retaliation from their bosses for reporting problems.
The derailment, which came at the start of the morning rush, snarled service for much of the day and closed the East Falls Church station for days as safety personnel investigated why the train went off the tracks. The cause was determined to be “wide gauge,” a condition in which the rails spread too far apart because of deteriorating wooden rail ties. Repairs to the track and rail cars cost about $860,000, Metro said.
Jackie Jeter, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, said the union would conduct its own investigation into the circumstances that led to the firings. If the review determines the firings were unjustified, she said, the union will fight them.
Jeter said that she believes Metro management may be placing the blame on workers who did not receive the training or instruction to properly perform their jobs.
“What they’ve done is not necessarily falsification. . . . There are a lot of nuances here,” Jeter said. “If someone actually went out and falsified the work that they do, then that’s one thing. If there is a culture of how they report, and what they’re told to do . . . that’s something else.”
Jeter said she has spoken to two of the track workers who were terminated.
“They are confused,” she said, “because they don’t know what they’ve done wrong.”
Wiedefeld said those workers had several ways to report problems if they feared retaliation — including the Office of Inspector General and a confidential program through the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
“What I’m saying is, any job, if you see something wrong . . . no matter who your boss is, you should raise it, right?” he said.
Though Wiedefeld said that the disciplinary measures were necessary to instill a culture of accountability within Metro’s ranks, the agency may be facing another problem: depleted numbers.
A Federal Transit Administration report in August said that Metro was working with a bare-bones track-inspection staff and needed to bring on more workers. Now the department has six fewer employees, and more may be terminated soon.
In the short term, Wiedefeld said, consultants and workers from other departments are filling in the gaps in the track-inspection department. In the long term, he said, the agency is planning to recruit and train new inspectors and to increase the use of laser and video technology to allow for more inspections.
Wiedefeld said Metro analyzed three years of inspection data from across the system.
Investigators looked at the level of detail in the inspection reports, how the inspections were performed, how long the inspections took and what problems they turned up. The investigation took in the entire system, he said. He declined to say whether other parts of the system might have been compromised by fabricated reports.
After the July derailment, the agency began inspections on more than 60 crossovers — where trains switch tracks — to ensure they were safe. Meanwhile, Metro safety officials began interviewing track workers responsible for the East Falls Church crossover.
Among other findings, Metro determined that track inspectors reported identical measurements over three years, falsely indicating that there had been no movement or deterioration of the ties.
“You’re not going to tell me that the track didn’t move a sixteenth of an inch or an eighth of an inch or a quarter of an inch over that time,” one of the interviewers asked an inspector, according to a safety report.
Metro did not release the identities of the fired employees.
Metro board Chairman Jack Evans said the findings were a troubling sign of a systemic lack of safety culture at Metro.
“I’m as outraged as anybody,” Evans said, “and [Wiedefeld] is taking all the necessary actions to discipline people, fire people and set up a new shop.”
Since the derailment, Metro has brought six outside inspectors, trained by the Federal Railroad Administration, to embed with inspection crews and provide on-the-job training and quality assurance. Metro also paid for refresher training courses for all inspectors and has hired outside companies to rewrite the track-inspection manual and conduct a systemwide assessment of track defects.
Track walkers will also have more time to inspect the system under the curtailed late-night service schedule.
Evans, also a D.C. councilman, said that, despite the sacrifice borne by riders and businesses in the District, he believed that approving the new hours was the right move to enhance safety.
His support for the proposal came after a compromise was struck. Under an amendment approved Thursday, Metro will be required to provide a progress report on its preventive maintenance program in May 2018.
The clause was meant to address the District’s concerns that two years of automatic late-night service cuts would provide a “carte blanche” to Metro management.
“It’s important for me, for the District and for other members of the board to have an update on what’s happened, how we’re doing and why we need to do this for another year,” Evans said after the vote.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), a Metro supporter and vocal critic of its failings, backed Wiedefeld’s disciplinary measures.
“This should serve as a clarion call to the workforce, from top to bottom, that the status quo is no longer acceptable,” Connolly said
Pressed on whether terminations were sufficient to instill a safety culture in the troubled system, Wiedefeld acknowledged that there was more to be done.
“You can’t fire your way out of the issues,” he said. “But you can demand individual accountability. I think that’s what we’re talking about here.”