Image by Ben R licensed under Creative Commons.

New federal track reports aren’t glowing news for Metro, but they do show that the beleaguered transit agency has been making progress fixing track safety issues over the past couple years. Inspectors continue to find issues small and large, but Metro is slowly but surely repairing them, according to two new months of track inspection data covering March and April 2018 released on July 27.

Federal Transit Administration inspectors took over safety oversight of the railroad in October 2015 and have been performing track inspections since. Inspectors walk the tracks with Metro employees to check for defects and follow up on previously-reported issues to make sure they’ve been fixed.

This round, inspectors found many of the same types of issues they've seen in the past, but overall there are fewer of them and they're less severe.

Inspectors find broken track fasteners

Inspectors found 12 track defects in the latest two months' reports which could've caused the tracks to be removed from service. However, only two were deemed critical requiring immediate repairs, whereas the other 10 were written up for workers to come back and fix at a later date.

On average, inspectors found four "black conditions," or potentially critical issues, per month between September 2017 and February 2018, the six months prior to the latest inspection reports.

All 12 of the recent issues involved broken or otherwise defective fasteners, which FTA and Metro track inspectors have frequently found in the past. Fasteners keep rails in place, and it’s critical to have enough working fasteners to hold the two rails the right distance apart (called the track “gauge”). Fasteners are especially critical in curves and anywhere a train might exert uneven pressure on a rail.

Rail worker safety progress is still ongoing

Inspectors also noted a few rail worker safety violations. Three trains sped by track workers too fast — the speed limit is 10 mph — and one train didn’t stop on the platform prior to where track workers were. Train operaters are supposed to stop at the station to talk to a flagger, whose job is to make sure they know how to operate the train safely around track workers.

According to FTA inspection reports, the flagger stationed at Federal Triangle “had to yell to get the attention of the operator to stop.” Flaggers are required to have a flashing lantern and hand sign to make themselves visible to train operators to try and prevent that kind of incident from occurring.

In addition, the Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC) makes periodic announcements to train operators to let them know where track workers are. All four incidents were reported to the ROCC, and staff then notified the proper safety officials.

Track personnel safety became a renewed Metro priority after a train nearly ran into two FTA track inspectors in October 2016. The agency is now giving some track workers arm bands to alert them of incoming work trains. If the pilot work as Metro hopes, they could be rolled out to alert all train workers. Testing is expected to start this quarter.

In 2010, two track workers were killed after being struck by a train. Former Metro board chairman Jim Graham said at the time it was “a direct result of human error."

A pile of collector shoes, which feed power from the third rail to trains, next to the tracks near Wiehle Reston East. Collector shoes can be knocked off if the third rail is misaligned. Image by FTA.

General, non-emergency maintenance can’t be forgotten

FTA inspectors continue to highlight Metro's need to maintain not just the tracks but also the equipment which supports train movement. Metro personnel will need to come back and fix things like broken or misaligned third rail insulators, broken third rail coverboards, degraded third rail cable watertight shrinkwrap, non-working emergency phone box lights, and tripping hazards.

Some of the problems could be classified as general wear and tear — lights on the emergency phone boxes burn out and coverboards come loose as they get jostled around during trackwork, for instance. Sometimes Metro crews place old pieces of rail cut out during routine and overnight maintenance in the middle of the tracks to be removed later, but the FTA flagged these as as tripping hazards for crews walking through the area later on.

FTA inspectors found 18 watertight sealing collars that didn’t protrude enough outside of the orange power cable “boot” assemblies during an inspection at Alexandria Rail Yard, which could point to inadequate installation or degraded equipment. Without proper sealing, water and contaminants can seep into power cables and cause smoke or even a fire.

Red, Green, and Orange lines are the worst for standing water and mud

Reports of standing water and mud in the tunnels were most commonly reported on the Red, Green, and Orange lines during the latest two months of reports. Mud and water can damage the electronics system that feeds power to Metro’s trains, so keeping the drains clear for water to run away from tracks is an important part of maintenance.

Tunnel leak leading to water and dirt collecting in an electrical junction box. Image by FTA.

Inspectors found more clogged drains and standing water in and near stations, including Gallery Place to L’Enfant Plaza and Columbia Heights to Fort Totten on the Yellow and Green Lines, and Eastern Market to Stadium Armory, Foggy Bottom to Rosslyn, and Metro Center to Smithsonian on the Orange/Silver/Blue Lines.

There was some standing mud and water on the Red Line, including at Forest Glen, but inspectors found drains cleared and leaks repaired between Grosvenor and Bethesda. Overall there were very few new leaks or mud reports in this area, if any, during the latest two months of inspections.

The improvements in water conditions on the western side of the Red Line could be an early result of Metro’s multi-million-dollar waterproofing project in the same area. In 2017, Metro hired a waterproofing contractor to inject grout on the outside of the tunnels between Grosvenor and Bethesda to prevent excess water from seeping in.

Reducing how much water Metro’s track equipment is exposed to can help prolong the life of the parts, increase reliability, and reduce how often arcing insulators occur.

Signs of progress, but more work to do

Metro has made a number of changes since 2015 when the FTA took over safety oversight of the rail system, and the new inspection reports seem to show that the agency has made progress in that time. Inspectors still found new issues in the recent two months, but the number of “critical” items that would remove tracks from service appear to be decreasing, allowing them to focus on the less serious but still important defects.

Since 2015, Metro shortened the number of hours the rail system is open, rebuilt the track inspection team (and fired a number of employees), completed SafeTrack, and began a new preventative maintenance program.

Neither of the new reports mention any worn-out rail ties, which was a contributing factor to the 2016 East Falls Church derailment, nor did they mention issues with grout pads, which hold up the third rail insulators. Worn down grout pads can increase the risk of electrical arcing, and they're one of the big pieces of track equipment being replaced during both this summer's Rhode Island Avenue shutdown as well as the Orange/Silver/Blue single-tracking.

Metro’s latest quarterly performance report parallels this: it says the tracks are becoming more reliable, but much work remains.

Metro Reasons is a regular breaking news, investigative reporting, and analysis column by Stephen Repetski about everything Metro. Please send tips to Metro Reasons.

Stephen Repetski is a Virginia native and has lived in the Fairfax area for over 20 years. He has a BS in Applied Networking and Systems Administration from Rochester Institute of Technology and works in Information Technology. Learning about, discussing, and analyzing transit (especially planes and trains) is a hobby he enjoys.