A Metrorail oversight committee released an audit Tuesday that outlined ongoing problems with the agency such as failures in emergency communications, lack of training, harassment among staff and outdated procedures.
The 50-page document from the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission also highlights staffing shortages as a prominent issue.
Metro officials have said the transit agency would need more than 50 certified controllers to run all four control desks in the Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC), according to the report. In July, Metro had more than 30, a figure essentially unchanged from five years ago.
“I have confidence that Metro leadership understands what is required of them and absolutely committed to making the improvements that are necessary,” David Meyer, CEO of the safety commission, said during a virtual interview with reporters. “The WMS team will pay very careful and close attention in the weeks and months ahead to ensure the problems get addressed adequately.”
Congress created the commission as an independent regulator to oversee Metro’s safety operation after a previous oversight panel failed to correct any problems.
The ROCC, located in the Carmen Turner Facility in Landover, operates around the clock and seen as the nucleus to Metrorail’s operation such as emergency responses, announcements on the loudspeaker for commuters and direction of 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 of 26 controllers employed as of March 1. Some controllers expressed frustration with ROCC management threatened workers with an “arrest or termination” for following procedures or asking questions.
“When management comes down to the console, they talk [to] you any old way. They yell. They curse,” one unnamed controller said.
The document also notes a “toxic workplace” where managers have used disparaging racist, sexist and homophobic comments.
“You don’t listen because you are nappy-headed. If you don’t train this student, I will have [the vice president of rail transportation] come down and walk your Black a– out of here,” the audit claims a controller heard a manager say.
The audit highlights Metro’s previous Metrorail problems that include a deadly 2009 crash near the Fort Totten station in northeast D.C. and a 2015 incident in which smoke engulfed at L’Enfant Plaza station in Southwest, killing one.
Meyer said the commission could enforce fines and sanctions against Metro, but believes the agency understands what needs to be done.
“I think that Metro has got the message at this point it has to improved staffing levels at the ROCC,” he said. “I’m not sure that fines or citations are really beneficial to them in that regard.”
Metro officials received a draft of the commission’s recommendations more than a month ago and received the formal audit Monday.
According to an informational update posted Tuesday’s on Metro’s website, the agency worked on the ROCC improvements in five categories: leadership and performance, roles and accountability, process culture, talent management and training.
The plan states Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld first directed staff to work on a plan in June. The objectives would be organized in short-, medium- and long-term solutions.
Some short-term solutions by the end of this year are putting safety and people first in the ROCC operations with a code of conduct to build trust between staff and managers.
By the end of 2021, Metro plans to implement a plan to fill vacant positions and develop a recruitment strategy and a comprehensive staff package and job descriptions.
The agency plans to fully execute certain directives, including a training program by December 2022 to certify all staff are prepared for their respective roles with “regular” drills.
“The new vision for the ROCC, drafted from suggestions and ideas of ROCC managers and staff, is: ‘Our people are at the center of what we do. We are a world-class, safety-driven control center and the best place to work in Metro.’”
Metro’s Safety and Operations Committee is scheduled to discuss the ROCC improvement plan Thursday.