“Failure to properly perform and document maintenance and any problems encountered while performing [preventive maintenance inspections] has the potential to create circumstances where equipment has deteriorated and failed in a way that contributes to injury or death,” according to the audit.
The findings come more than seven years after federal safety investigators said problems with Metro’s public safety radio system hampered first responders during a 2015 smoke incident at L’Enfant Plaza that had kills one. Issues with the reliability, range or handling of Metro’s various communications systems were identified in external and internal reviews dating back to 2010, according to the safety commission.
The latest audit comes as Metro has been nearly a year into an independent federal safety investigation that sidelined more than half of its rail car fleet. The shortage has forced commuters to endure long waits for trains as the transit agency tries to recover from a pandemic that has also cut ridership in half.
The latest audit covers Metrorail’s voice and data communications systems – including radio, public address and emergency response systems – and examined the training of workers who maintain these systems.
In response to the safety commission’s findings, Metro cited progress on a major project to replace its radio infrastructure, as well as improvements in monitoring the reliability of its communications systems. Metro officials said in a statement that “we will work to implement corrective actions to address the [commission’s] conclusions and recommendations without delay.
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The commission said subway staff “fail to effectively communicate, respond to, and identify problems with breakdown calls” – that is, work orders for corrective maintenance – on transit agency communication systems. Metro is closing repair tickets “without effectively identifying, documenting and resolving issues,” the audit found.
An internal analysis examining Metro’s radio communications performance in December 2021 found that 45% of problem calls ended up being listed as “no problems found” – despite problems encountered in the field, according to the audit.
Metro Transit police say they encountered radio communication issues in December 2020 when passengers were forced to evacuate from a stalled train between Georgia Avenue-Petworth and Fort Totten stations due to power issues, according to auditing. When subway communications failed, police had to use cell phones to relay information. The follow-up inspection “affirmed that no issues were found”, according to the audit.
This pattern repeated itself after a near miss at the West Falls Church rail yard in February 2021, the commission said.
A yard operator was trying to change instructions “for a train operator to avoid a head-on collision with a train,” but the train operator did not acknowledge the transmission, according to the audit. The two workers “reported having problems understanding radio transmissions in the yard”, the audit said, but a later inspection said there were no problems.
There are sometimes chasms in the way communication problems are perceived, the audit showed.
An investigation into a March 2021 train evacuation near the Rhode Island Avenue station found that radio communications were inconsistent, and the audio quality in some cases was so poor that transmissions were unclear. Metro workers “responsible for resolving these reports said a combination of “radio system problems, user error, low battery power, and radio channel occupancy” likely contributed. to problems, which included the need to repeat instructions multiple times, according to the Audit.
Metro ultimately downplayed the issues, according to the audit, which said the transit agency “did not provide an investigative solution to the problem, did not investigate and address root causes, and did not did not offer effective alternatives”.
Metro did not respond to questions about these three incidents.
The safety commission said its auditors had received various explanations as to why so many calls resulted in the conclusion “no problems were found”.
“Some communications personnel suggested that end users do not understand the limitations of WMATA’s radio system, and others suggested that system malfunction should not always be viewed as a problem,” according to the audit. While some technicians said they tried to recreate the issues described in the work orders, “others simply closed the ticket without further action,” the audit said.
As an example, the safety commission said, a Metro employee noted problems with CCTV monitors. If the monitor was on again at the time of the inspection, the employee would add a note in an internal system that the worker was “monitoring for the next few days and if it goes off again, we will have to troubleshoot it.”
But, according to the audit, “monitoring in this case means checking to see if another work order has come in for the same issue, not proactively monitoring system functionality.”
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Although critical of Metro’s handling of its communications systems, the safety commission also credited the transit agency for its work installing a new radio system capable of handling a wider frequency range. Metro said about 80% of the work on the underground fiber infrastructure is complete and the project aims to increase reliability and performance when complete, according to the audit. The commission also praised Metro for beginning to publish reports earlier this year on the reliability of some of its systems.
Beyond closing preventive maintenance work orders without addressing known issues, the safety commission cited a range of other shortcomings. Among these issues, according to the audit, were signs of recurrent water, dirt and dust intrusion into the communications rooms that house the equipment.
The commission also said Metro did not have a comprehensive plan to maintain the employees needed for its communications systems, and that there were “Metrorail job descriptions that have not been updated for years. 1970s and 1980s and do not reflect current job responsibilities and necessary qualifications”.