Due to rampant problems at Metro’s Rail Operations Control Center, two board members proposed for one of the nation’s largest transit agencies to shut down its Metrorail system.
The idea from David Horner came two days after the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission released an audit with 21 recommendations for the agency to improve the operations center in Landover known as the ROCC. Some of the noted failures include emergency communications, lack of training, harassment among staff and other outdated procedures.
It would mark the second time since the system went down for one day in March 2016 to inspect cables that caught fire. A few months later, Metro began its SafeTrack maintenance program.
“I urge you to take radical action to fix the ROCC,” Horner, a Metro board member who represents the federal government, said Thursday, Sept. 10. “Now that the dysfunction of the ROCC has been laid before the public, you would receive robust support from many quarters for decisive action.”
Another reason for the shutdown is stubbornly low ridership during the coronavirus pandemic, which Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said has fallen 88 percent and remained that way for the last six months.
Michael Goldman, who chairs Metro board of director’s Safety and Operations Committee, agreed with Horner.
“Cultural change is essential to maintaining safety for the riders. Treat this as a crisis,” said Goldman of Montgomery County, Md.
Unfortunately, Metro’s livestream went out while Jayme Johnson, director of change management for the ROCC since July 7, began to respond to Horner’s comments.
The ROCC located in the Carmen Turner Facility in Landover is a 24-hour operation and seen as the nucleus to Metrorail’s operation. It is the hub for emergency responses, announces on the loudspeaker for commuters and directs all trains throughout each of the 91 Metrorail stations in Northern Virginia, the District and Prince George’s and Montgomery counties in Maryland.
The audit shows the commission conducted interviews with 21 out of 26 controllers employed as of March 1.
Some controllers voiced frustration with ROCC management threats to workers of “arrest or termination” for following procedures or asking questions.
Widefield said Thursday the agency will continue to scrutinize allegations of sexual and racial comments from ROCC staff.
“Any type of harassment is unacceptable,” he said. “We are going to find out what happened there first before we take any action on those. We want to get to the root of it.”
Joe Leader, chief operation officer for Metro, said one problem at the ROCC stems from lack of experience with the average service for controllers is currently 2½ years.
He attributed it to the agency not having a plan at least dating back to 2012 to replace an “exodus” of experienced workers.
Metro officials have 45 days to respond to the commission’s audit. In the meantime, a two-year plan has been launched to develop short-, medium- and long-term solutions ranging from better training and recruitment to conducting a nationwide search for a new ROCC director by December.
The audit also noted how some ROCC controllers worked 20 straight days without a day off.
“It’s utterly unacceptable that our employees were working that number of successive days,” said Theresa Impastato, chief safety officer for Metro.
She said the agency and unions are working on a new policy to combat fatigue that is to be submitted to the safety commission “in the coming months.”
The coronavirus caused some staffing shortages at the operations center, which the report highlights about 30 controllers employed there in July. However, another 20 controllers are needed for a total of 50 to run all four control desks.
Leader said two groups are currently undergoing controller training that should be completed by next year.
In other business, the board’s Finance and Capital Committee reviewed a grim financial outlook that includes a $212 million shortfall for fiscal year 2021.
Without federal assistance, there could be service cuts to close Metrorail stations by 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday. The stations currently close at 11 p.m.
Another proposal would be to push back the Silver Line extension to open in Northern Virginia to July 1, 2021. The line has been scheduled for operation in the spring.