Congress challenges WMATA on safety, 7000-series train problems
Members of Congress grilled Metro leaders Wednesday over the transit agency's untenable situation: more than half its trains out of service because of a safety issue, COVID and telework decimating its ridership and revenue, and a looming budget gap.
The two-hour hearing at the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Reform was wide-ranging, with questions about Metro's response to COVID, how it's used federal dollars in capital budgets, and the search for a new General Manager.
"Metro needs to do better," Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) said. "The new general manager will need to work with a Safety Commission to restore the public's faith in Metro.
"Obviously, if they don't think our system is safe... they're not going to ride it."
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Virginia) originally called the hearing in December during the peak of the 7000-series investigation.
Metro removed all of those trains, 60% percent of the fleet, after the independent Washington Metrorail Safety Commission called for them to be sidelined after an October derailment on the Blue Line. The National Transportation Safety Board and Safety Commission found the wheels had spread too far apart and derailed the train after it went through a switch. Preliminary investigations found Metro knew about the issue as early as 2017 and the problem got worse over time, with a total of 51 instances in the past four years.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said it was shocking that Metro knew about the problems but nothing was said to the General Manager, the board of directors, or the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission.
"We need to learn why this information was not shared and what steps have been taken to ensure that such information would be shared in the future," she said.
In January, Metro said it will keep the trains out of service until at least around mid-April to get to the root cause of the issue and give workers time to come up with new solutions to monitor the problem, like an in-track monitoring system instead of nightly checks on all 748 cars.
The hearing featured Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld, Board Chair Paul Smedberg, Inspector General Geoff Cherrington, Metrorail Safety Commission CEO David Mayer and David Ditch, an analyst from the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.
However, little new information was revealed. Ongoing National Transportation Safety Board, Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, U.S. Department of Transportation, and other investigations limited what Metro officials would say on the record.
Metro Inspector General Geoff Cherrington is conducting an investigation into communication on the safety issues, which should be complete in the coming weeks. He says they've found no evidence that WMATA "intentionally withheld" information about the issues from the Metrorail Safety Commission.
"Nevertheless, increased frequency of... failures year over year should have raised concerns beyond the chief mechanical officer," Cherrington said.
He said WMATA previously faced wheel issues on older trains and brought them up as warranty issues. In the past, wheels were replaced and issues mitigated, Cherrington said. Metro staff told Cherrington they hoped to have similar outcomes this time. Cherrington said Metro maintenance staff should've reported the issue as both a warranty and safety issue.
"(The chief maintenance officer) felt that they could be mitigated again with a warranty issue and didn't decide to run it up the chain of command," Cherrington said. "We think he should have."
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Maryland) compared it to an oven that's not working and is a fire danger in a house.
"I just report it to the oven manufacturer and start writing them and I don't tell anybody in the house, that the oven is a danger to life and limb," Raskin said.
Metro's General Manager Paul Wiedefeld agreed it was not acceptable. He says Metro is moving from paper to digital logs to help track safety issues and that if any issue has a safety component it is "flagged up the food chain" to management and the safety oversight bodies.
Rep. Katie Porter (D-California) pressed Wiedefeld on whether Kawasaki would be held responsible or if they have a warranty. Wiedefeld deferred answering, citing the ongoing investigation, but said that is part of the investigation.
Other Republican congress members prodded at whether Metro is a good investment for federal tax dollars. Ditch, the analyst from the Heritage Foundation even suggested privatizing parts of the system. Metro officials pushed back on that insisting transit is a necessary public good that should not make money.
However, during the hearing, Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld did acknowledge a challenging future, as a $500 million funding gap looms in 2024. It's still unclear if and how many riders return after the pandemic.
"Simply put, the pre-pandemic financial model for Metro is no longer sustainable," Wiedefeld told the committee. "Given the changes in ridership and revenues that have been the backbone of Metro's operating budget the current funding model is broken."
Beyond officials getting peppered with questions, no additional action or oversight proposals emerged from Wednesday's hearing. In December, when Connolly called the hearing, he said it was Congress' job to provide oversight, not operate Metro.
"Protecting the public interest is our job," Connolly said. "When, in the past, we felt Metro was not responsive, we created the Safety Commission, which discovered this issue of the core 7000 series safety flaw.
"So Congress has immense power if it wants to use it. I am somebody who believes that we should have accountability and oversight, but be slow to intrude in the actual operations of Metro, which ought to be a local responsibility."
After the hearing, his spokesperson said, "We will continue oversight of Metro and these issues."
This story is from DCist.com, the local news site of WAMU.
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