Metro’s Latest Breakdown: Control Room Operations

by James A. Bacon

The Silver Line extension of the Washington Metro might not open on time. The latest problem, according to Greater Greater Washington, is that the commuter rail system may not be able to hire, train and retain enough rail controllers to operate the system safely.

The Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC) oversees train movement on tracks. The center is critical to the safe operation of the rail system. In its most recent safety audit, the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission (WMSC) issued 21 findings requiring corrective action.

Metrorail has failed to follow its fatigue management policies that allow controllers at least one day off per week. Moreover, the control center is a toxic workplace.

The control center’s environment includes distractions, fear, threats and conflicting instructions that prevent overworked and undertrained controllers from fully and properly carrying out their duties. These serious safety concerns create a variety of safety risks for everyone who depends on Metrorail. …

Metrorail must address a toxic workplace culture in the ROCC that includes racial and sexual comments, harassment, and other unprofessional behavior such as attempts to manipulate safety event investigations that create unacceptable safety risks.

Repeated crashes and chronic delays have turned off thousands of Northern Virginians and other Washington-area riders. Even before the onset of the COVID-19 epidemic, ridership was down. Addressing safety and on-time performance issues has been a top priority of Metro management, yet a deeply rooted workplace culture has resisted change. The loss of fare revenue has aggravated Metro’s financial plight, increasing the likelihood that the Commonwealth of Virginia and Northern Virginia localities will have to cough up another round of subsidies.

After learning proper safety procedures in months of classroom training, ROCC controllers start their jobs only to receive conflicting direction from management to ignore those procedures, according to the audit. The conflict undermines morale and contributes to a high rate of staff turnover, contributing to staff shortages. Working longer hours and more days, controllers experience more fatigue, which harms morale, makes them more prone to errors, and… contributes to turnover.

In 2019, says the report, ““dysfunction in the ROCC during unplanned events and emergencies that includes yelling, conflicting instructions, and the failure to use checklists detracts from the ROCC’s ability to manage the rail system appropriately and effectively.”

No wonder, despite massive subsidies for Metro, so many Northern Virginians are sticking to their cars. Ironically, commuters using the Dulles Toll Roads are paying higher tolls to subsidize construction of Phase Two extension of the Silver Line to Loudoun County. Phase Two, which originally was expected to commence operations this year, now is scheduled for 2021.

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10 responses to “Metro’s Latest Breakdown: Control Room Operations

  1. The “good” news is, I am not sure we need the Silver Line anymore post-COVID. I hope we can get more Marylander’s like the guys at the WaPo who editorialized so pro-Silver Line, using it to go to the Dulles airport. Hopefully after I am gone, the future inhabitants of NoVA can make some use of this transit line.

  2. Large quantities of weapons-grade incompetence and corruption were needed to turn one of the best metro systems in the country into one of the worst in less than less than 25 years.

  3. My brother works for Metro. A surveyor. He claims every safe ride on the system is a mini miracle out of scripture.

    • I know people that work/worked for METRO who won’t use the system and they ride for free.

      ROCC is only the half of it. Deferred maintenance has been a mainstay as with all transit and or rail system. Operations want to move people and or goods, allowing a maintenance worker to correct an issue to allow transport at proper track speed is less desirable as it would temporarily stop the trains. They’d rather continue on with the issue at reduced speed.

      SAFE track that saw the shutting of different lines on METRO was the result of the deferred maintenance.

  4. That’s too bad. Used to ride from WashNat to Carrolton(?) and hop a cab to Greenbelt rather than rent a car. Always enjoyed riding the Metro. But that was 40 years ago. Stuff ages.

    • It’s about maintenance.

      To use an example that most people should be familiar with–the cost of one engine rebuild or replacement is roughly 25 times the cost of the oil changes it would have taken to prevent it (assuming that an engine costs $5000 to rebuild or replace including labor, that oil changes cost $30 each, and that 6 skipped oil changes will lead to engine failure).

      Similar examples are applicable to other situations where maintenance is required.

  5. Post-COVID, I think Metro should shut down completely for at least three months. No trains, no connections to MARC or VRE. Every commuter on the road. No reasons given and no negotiated re-opening for any reason.

    After that ask the area governments if they want a Metro system or not.

    • You’d just drive people from the rails and pack the roads even more. That is essentially what they did with SAFEtrack. Where they would close specific lines for 3 months to conduct maintenance ops that were neglected. The ridership never came back.

  6. That is the point. I would call their bluff essentially. Look if they are fine with overly crowded roads so they don’t have to pay for government subsidized mass transit, fine with me. I suspect they will be begging for Metro to re-open.

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