Federal agency blames ‘poor safety culture’ for 2021 DC Metro train derailment
Global OHS News rail safety USA
By Ashraf Khalil
A top federal transportation safety official on Thursday harshly criticized Washington’s regional transit agency, saying a “poor safety culture” led to an October 2021 derailment that caused hundreds of new Metro railcars to be pulled from service.
A final National Transportation Safety Board report on the incident concluded that the Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority had been aware for years of a safety issue that caused the wheels on the new 7000-series Metro cars to expand wider than the tracks. However, NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said that information was poorly communicated within the organization and not acted upon with the proper urgency.
“This incident was 100% preventable,” Homendy said at a news conference. “We’re absolutely lucky that this did not end in a tragedy.”
On Oct. 12, 2021, an eight-car train slipped off the tracks on the Metro’s Blue Line near Arlington National Cemetery. Some passengers were trapped in a tunnel in a dark train car and had to be evacuated on foot, but there were no serious injuries.
Homendy said in 2021 the car had apparently derailed once earlier in the day, and then re-connected with the rails by itself, before derailing a second time. On Thursday, she said that further analysis had revealed two separate incidents where the train car briefly derailed and then corrected itself.
The derailment and the ensuing investigation helped speed the ouster of former WMATA general manager Paul Wiedefeld. After announcing his retirement date of July 2022, Wiedefeld left two months early in May 2022 amid revelations that half of WMATA’s train operators had lacked retraining and testing required for recertification. Wiedefeld now serves as Maryland’s secretary of transportation.
Without mentioning Wiedefeld by name, Homendy seemingly laid much of the blame on his administration. She praised new General Manager Randy Clarke for embracing the investigation process and installing a rigid inspection regime while the wheelsets on 748 separate train cars are replaced.
“I want to commend Randy Clarke for taking this seriously,” Homendy said. ”You don’t always get that during an investigation.“
The 7000-series cars, about 60% of the fleet, are gradually returning to service and subject to monthly inspections. So far 199 of the 2,992 wheelsets have been replaced.
WMATA said in a statement that it “fully supports the NTSB Derailment report and thanks all parties to the investigation for their leadership and thoughtful approach. The collaboration and professionalism between the NTSB and WMSC (Washington Metrorail Safety Commission) have been critical to our ability to move this process forward, and we appreciate that our proactive steps have been acknowledged.”
However, a fight looms over who will pay for the repairs — WMATA or the cars’ manufacturer Kawasaki. The WMATA statement specifies that the agency, “has issued a fleet defect notice to Kawasaki related to our performance-based contract. Based on the contract, Kawasaki is responsible to pay all costs to fix this wheelset defect.”
The transit authority estimated the cost of repairs at $55 million.
Kawasaki laid the the blame on the agency in a statement, saying that WMATA provided inaccurate instructions and muddled communications and didn’t inform Kawasaki of a looming problem despite evidence dating back to 2014.
“While we understand the budget crisis that WMATA is facing, any suggestion that Kawasaki should absorb the cost of WMATA’s own failures regarding the wheelsets of the 7000 series trains is not rooted in reality,” the company’s statement said. “The mismanagement by WMATA under prior leadership, cited in the NTSB’s final report, comes as no surprise to those who have followed the agency.”