(Courtesy photo)
(Courtesy photo)

The National Transportation Safety Board released a scathing report on how Metro workers knew tracks remained in poor condition almost a year before a train derailed in July on the Silver Line near the East Falls Church station in Northern Virginia.

The safety board also released transcripts from an August interview of a Metro safety officer that track inspectors routinely put the same measurements in monthly reports, sometimes in fear of retaliation from supervisors.

NTSB investigators noted 15 deteriorating rail crossties in the area of the derailment were identified between January 2015 and July 2016, but weren’t repaired.

The 63 passengers aboard the derailed train on July 29 were not seriously injured.

“The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was a wide track gage condition resulting from the sustained use of deteriorating wooden crossties due to [Metro’s] ineffective inspection and maintenance practices and inadequate safety oversight,” according to the report released Thursday, Dec. 1.

The next day, the House Oversight subcommittee held a more than two-hour hearing on Capitol Hill regarding Metro’s SafeTrack yearlong maintenance program and other safety-related topics.

Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld received praise from committee members for trying to change the agency’s internal culture in a short amount of time.

“We’ve got everybody pointing fingers at everybody else,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-North Carolina), who chairs the subcommittee on Government Operations. “The genesis of this problem is the culture that we have allowed to pervade and exist for a long time. [Metro] has become the butt of jokes. It’s not a joking manner.”

Raymond Jackson of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 testified the problem for Metro’s failures rest with upper management personnel who refuse to take advance from senior workers.

“As things have progressed, we are now concerned that [Metro’s] failure to consult with our union and with the experienced employees on the ground will be its fatal flaw,” said Jackson, the union’s second vice president. “Had our input been solicited, we would have worked to find a better way of getting the work done without disrupting the lives of so many riders in this region. By and large, this invaluable resource of institutional knowledge is overlooked and sometimes even ignored by management.”

Transcripts released by NTSB show Metro’s safety officer Robert Davis grilling track inspectors about how the train derailment may have occurred.

Davis asked Jovito Azurin, who inspected the tracks near East Falls Church, how could measurements be exactly the same three years apart.

“You got the chance to make this right and we can fix it and move forward, or there’s plenty of people out there that want to work,”

Davis tells Azurin, according to the transcript. “Plenty of people. Lot of people. Especially at Metro, they [would] want to work.”

Later in the interview, Azurin says he doesn’t know what else to say about when reports were filed on inspecting tracks, prompting Davis to issue a warning.

“JoJo, once you go out this door I can’t help you anymore,” Davis said. “This is the last chance I got to help you. I need my paycheck. My family needs my paycheck. My grandchildren want to … see Pop-Pop. So I’m not willing to take that chance, JoJo. If you are, God bless you. You’re a better man than I am. I’d never go out in handcuffs on TV.”

Davis also interviewed Trapp Thomas, another Metro tracker worker who said “management dropped the ball as they always do” in regards to not identifying and repairing defective crossties, according to the transcripts.

When Davis asked about putting in restrictions, Thomas said, “Well, we can’t talk about just this location [around East Falls Church]. When I put in speed restrictions, I get retaliated against. We can’t just talk about this.”

Azurin and Thomas could not be reached for comment.

Back at Metro headquarters in Northwest after several committee meetings on Dec. 1, Wiedefeld declined to comment about the NTSB report and the status of the workers interviewed.

However, he said a criminal investigation is ongoing and the board’s Safety Committee will receive an update Dec. 15.

Wiedefeld, who marked his first year with the agency on Nov. 30, has maintained safety is a top priority. In addition, he will continue to improve the employee culture in terms of retaliation against whistleblowers by senior staff.

“It’s an issue that has been raised … and it’s one to be very clear it is not acceptable,” he said. “If I get anything from an employee that raises an issue like that I want to make sure that it is addressed immediately. That is part of the culture change here.”

Rep. John Mica (R-Florida), who chaired his last subcommittee hearing on Transportation and Public Assets, offered a solution for Metro workers who falsified documents.

“My recommendation is fire … those that did not perform,” he said.

Coverage for the Washington Informer includes Prince George’s County government, school system and some state of Maryland government. Received an award in 2019 from the D.C. Chapter of the Society of...

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