WASHINGTON – The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s recent update to Congress contained a half-dozen takeaways for commuters and visitors who ride the Metro rail system in the national capital region.
Metro, which first began operations in 1976 and now runs across a 103-mile-long network of lines, has shown its age and the consequences of years of delayed maintenance. But WMATA’s leaders have been working to address those issues.
At an Oct. 22 hearing of the House Oversight and Reform Committee’s government operations subcommittee, lawmakers largely praised Metro’s improvements while acknowledging there was much work left to do.
“The efficient and responsive operations of our government depends on ensuring that the federal employees of the Greater Washington Metropolitan Area have a safe, reliable and effective transit system,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, said.
These are the key points from the hearing:
# Metro is prioritizing “safety above service”
WMATA General Manager and CEO Paul Wiedefeld said the organization now prioritizes safety concerns over anything else.
“That’s not historically what we were doing because of the pressures to put service out there,” he said.
On Oct. 7, two eastbound trains collided between the Farragut West and Foggy Bottom stations. The Washington Metrorail Safety Commission tweeted the following day that the “striking train” was under a “zero speed command,” meaning it was supposed to be stationary.
3/Train #700 – the striking train – proceeded with what is known as a “zero speed command.” Such command directs an operator to keep the train stationary.
— Washington Metrorail Safety Commission (@MetrorailSafety) October 8, 2019
There were no passengers on either train, but the operators were taken to the hospital and released, according to the Rail Transit Operations, Performance and Safety Group.
The commission found that while permission is required to move a train during a zero speed command, there are no protections stopping an operator from moving it anyway.
Commission CEO David Mayer said he was not looking to place blame on individuals.
“I’m interested in systemic fixes and systemic solutions,” he said.
In recent years, there have been other safety issues: a passenger pulled the emergency brake in 2015, leaving commuters stranded for hours; that same year, dozens were sent to the hospital and one woman died after smoke filled a train car; and there have been several derailments.
# Metro is hoping to bring back later hours
Metro cut hours for its rail services in June 2017 as part of the agency’s SafeTrack initiative.
Metrorail services previously had run until midnight Sunday through Thursday and 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. But the agency needed more time for “preventative maintenance we never did,” Wiedefeld said.
Weekly maintenance hours were down 25% from 1998 to 2016, according to WMATA’s website.
Rail services currently close at 11:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 11 p.m. on Sundays.
WMATA expects to bring back the pre-June 2017 hours on July 1, 2020, according to a report from the board. These changes will be accounted for in its upcoming budget, Wiedefeld said.
Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Kensington, said his constituents who work in the hospitality and restaurant industries have shared with him their needs for later-operating trains.
“That’s what we want to do as quickly as we can and as quickly as it’s safe to do it,” Wiedefeld said.
Bus schedules vary by route.
# Metro fares could go up soon
WMATA considers fare increases every two years, and Metro’s fare last went up in 2017.
Wiedefeld said the system is in need of about $37 million, and has been exploring options to help keep the cost to consumers lower. (He said earlier in the hearing the agency lost about $36 million due to fare evasion the previous fiscal year.)
Some of the options for increasing revenue include more advertising, being more financially efficient in other areas and increasing ridership, which will partly be led by the expansion of the Silver Line, said Paul Smedberg, the board chairman of WMATA.
The Silver Line will extend to Washington-Dulles International Airport and areas in northern Virginia. It is scheduled to be finished next summer.
# New ethics revisions
Former WMATA Chairman Jack Evans resigned from the board in June after a 20-page report by the system’s ethics committee found Evans violated several codes.
Some of his alleged infractions included bolstering a parking contract for a vendor he was a consultant for and offering to “leverage my (WMATA) contacts and relationships” in his job application to a law firm.
The D.C. Council held its first meeting in October to put together a schedule for the Evans’s investigation.
Smedberg said the WMATA board unanimously passed new ethics codes in September.
Under the new rules, board members will be required to submit a list of vendors and clients they serve and where they are employed. Any violations will be reported to the agency’s inspector general and the board will discuss and act on the violation publicly.
# Possible spying on Metro riders by China
WMATA Inspector General Geoffrey Cherrington admitted the agency has concerns about cybersecurity and espionage, given that WMATA has purchased about 800 of Metro’s SmarTrip cards from China.
He told Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-District of Columbia, that he cannot guarantee spying will happen, but he does consider it a “red flag” and issued an alert to management.
“Whenever the subway system runs underneath something particularly as critical as the nation’s capital … we’re concerned that it can be controlled by a third party or outside of the Metro system,” Cherrington said.
He added that his office plans to investigate and has recommended to Wiedefeld that a cybersecurity provision be included in WMATA’s procurement process.