FixWMATA Podcast Episode 007

Episode 007 of the FixWMATA Podcast was recorded in January, 2018 and features news and an interview with Roger Bowles of the Rail Transit Ops group (@RailTransitOps).


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Text of this episode:

I’m Chris Barnes and this… is the FixWMATA Podcast

This week we take a quick look back at the news, take a look ahead at the week of meetings, and then I sit down with Roger Bowles of the Rail Transit OPS Group to talk about this week’s Red Line derailment.

In WMATA news this week…

In the wake of a derailed Red Line train Monday morning we’re learning radio dead spots are still a problem plaguing Metro. The Federal Transit Administration issued a safety directive this week with recommendations that WMATA better inform staff of the dead spots. In addition to the radio issues the directive points out lack of testing track work before trains run on the rails again, addressing potentially serious worker safety issues and ensuring elevator and escalator workers follow maintenance rules and requirements to prevent safety issues for riders. WTOP broke this news and has more details.

While every group and politician continues to beat the drum for dedicated funding at WMATA the Maryland legislature came out with 2 bills this week – one that calls for dedicated funding and another that calls for reform of the WMATA Board of Directors to include requirements for Maryland members that would increase transit-related knowledge on the Board. Much of this came from Marc Korman who was recently on the podcast to go over several of these details.

WMATA has hired an Assistant Inspector General to replace Isabel Cumming who, as reported on a previous podcast, has left Metro to become the Inspector General for the City of Baltimore. Kimberly Howell will oversee the department’s internal investigations into fraud, waste and abuse. Howell comes to Metro from the US Nuclear Regulator Commission and has over 25 years of public service.

And the Montgomery County Sentinel reports this week that Metro is still having problems with “Back2Good”. Quality Assurance officials at Metro say several of the projects from “SafeTrack” which caused several days of single-tracking and shutdowns over the last 2 years left some problems unresolved or created new problems after the work finished.

These stories and more can be found on FixWMATA dot com where new stories are added throughout the week.

Looking ahead here are just a few of the opportunities we have to get involved with fixing WMATA this week:

The WMATA Board of directors will have several committee meetings and the full Board meeting starting at 9 AM on January 25th. The Safety and Service Delivery Committee meets followed by the Capital and Strategic Planning Committee, followed by the Finance and Budget Committee and then finally the full Board of Directors meeting is scheduled for 11 AM.

All WMATA Board Meetings, Riders’ Advisory Council meetings, and Accessibility Advisory Committee meetings take place at WMATA Headquarters at 600 5th Street NW and most are open to the public.

These events and others with more information can be found on under Calendar.

[transition music]

On January 15th just before 6:30 AM a Red Line train in the direction of Glenmont derailed between Farragut North and Metro Center. There were 63 people on board and no one was injured.

I asked Roger Bowles from the Rail Transit OPS Group to come back to the podcast to tell us what happened.

[begin interview audio]

[FixWMATA] This morning I’m sitting down with Roger from the Rail Transit Operations, Performance and Safety Group, otherwise known as @RailTransitOps on Twitter. Roger, welcome back. You are the first repeat on the podcast. You were here last month. When I was putting that together I said “you know, we’re not going to hear from Roger again until Rail Transit Ops has something really cool to talk about or Metro has screwed up really badly. So, Roger, which one of those are you here for this morning?

[Roger] Well… it’s going to be for discussing the derailment Monday morning outside Farragut North.

[F] OK, so this is being recorded on Thursday morning, 3 days later. But what happened Monday morning January 15th was a Red Line train going in the direction of Glenmont derailed after leaving Farragut North – so between Farragut North station and Metro Center. It was a 7000 series train and 3 of the 8 cars derailed. I’m going to let you walk us through the specifics of what happened that morning and then we’re going to talk about the followup – how Metro handled the situation. So give us the facts, Roger. What happened Monday morning?

[R] Well on Monday morning at about 6:27 Red Line train 106 left Farragut North en route to Metro Center. As it was traveling to Metro Center it reached approximate speed of about the low 30’s – estimated by DC Metro Hero. At that point the train encountered a rail defect which Metro has identified as a crack in the base of the rail at the bottom part of the rail which resulted in the 5th, 6th, and 7th cars derailing. After that it took approximately, according to Metro estimates, 40 minutes to identify that the train had actually derailed. DC Fire was notified at about, from what our information shows, about 6:29 – 6:30 that morning to report to Farragut North for the possible report of smoke. Which most likely, I agree with Paul Wiedefeld, it was probably the concrete as the train slid along side of the tunnel wall. DC Fire arrived, they assessed the situation and about 8:00 they had gotten 63 passengers and employees off the train and walked them to Metro Center. The train, after it derailed, apparently slid about 1000 feet before coming to a final stop. This, based on what we heard over transcripts and information we know about the system, resulted from the train losing it’s brake pressure. Which, as a safety precaution, all the train’s brakes locked in what’s called “emergency”. As far as the facts of it that’s pretty much it. It’s not really a long-winded thing – it’s cut and bare. It hit a crack, the wheels came off the tracks, train came to a stop, passengers were evacuated.

[F] OK and we should mention this morning – being Thursday morning, again – it’s still an ongoing investigation so I’m sure more information will probably come from that investigation. So this is just what you guys at Rail Transit Ops have seen and heard. And that’s my next question is – Monday was an MLK holiday so thankfully the train wasn’t full. Any other Monday morning and that train would have been packed. But I saw that your group jumped into action. What did you guys do to monitor this event and then get information out to riders?

[R] Well, Monday being a holiday we were operating on what we consider in the group as reduced operations. Which is where we occasionally will monitor what the system’s doing via DC Metro Hero and actually the MetroAlerts – which is what alerted us first. The initial tweet that Metro sent out saying that there was a train malfunction outside Farragut North we pretty much bypassed that one due it being a holiday and being early morning it wouldn’t be a major inconvenience.

[F] Those happen all the time.

[R] Right. The service suspension tweet is what sent us into gear. At that point we knew something had happened that required them to suspend complete service in both directions. That’s when we began to pull up our data, go online – pull up our audio files, pull up DC Metro Hero – look at where the trains were isolated, and start going from there. And then from that point just getting what we knew out to the riders so that any riders that were on the system or planning on using the system would have some sort of idea of what was going on.

[F] And that’s one thing I like about your group – you were telling people what you *knew* – not what you thought was happening or drawing any kind of conjecture. You’re almost like a 3rd-part NTSB if the NTSB did pre-incident evaluations of stuff. So in that respect – in that honor – you’re very factual about the stuff you put out there. So I think riders really appreciate that information when Metro may not be as freely releasing that kind of information. What did Metro get right in response to the incident and what did they get wrong? So, the incident happened – things happen – and I think everyone understands that. That it’s a moving system – there are moving parts. What continues to frustrate me is how Metro responds when stuff happens. So walk us through how you think Metro did responding to this incident.

[R] The response… we’re going to go with…

[F] You’re going to give them a grade?

[R] Yeah, we’re going to go with a… emergency response I’ll actually give them a B+. Because the emergency response was pretty well done.

[F] And that’s the coordination with DC Fire, police department, all that coordination that goes into responding?

[R] Correct. As far as the communications – Metro didn’t do too well. We’ve already identified several procedural issues that weren’t followed exactly as typically done in this incident that could have actually sped up communications to both riders and to Metro itself as far as what has occurred. There still needs to be some work done as far as communications even between departments, even between the ROCC and train operators. There were several issues as far as initially finding out that the train was derailed. So, there’s some work that Metro’s going to have to do as far as procedures go.

[F] Now, so you’re talking about communication with riders and making sure riders know what’s going on but also communication as far as working radio systems within Metro. I’ve seen that that continues to be a problem – it was a problem during the L’Enfant incident 3 years ago and reporters this week have already come out with articles saying it’s a problem now. They say there was a dead spot between Farragut North and Metro Center but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess you’re going to say there’s a lot more dead spots than just that one?

[R] Correct. Personally for me – I’ve been monitoring Metro for over 20 years so this is now the, what I consider the 2nd generation radio system. There was the original analog system that Metro used up until January 2015. Then they converted to what they use now – digital radios. There hasn’t been that much of a difference. The analog radios – there were several known dead spots that they knew about. The digital radios – there are dead spots however they bounce around. So one train could go through an area – perfectly fine radios. The next train – no communications.

[F] How do you fix that? Is that a line of sight problem or is that a digital communication as far as like a cellular reception kind of problem? How do you fix those dead spots?

[R] I’m not the best on radios but as far as I know from what I do know is since they’re using digital it’s going to have to be an infrastructure – has to be maintained.

[F] So it’s antennas, repeaters, that kind of thing? OK. Following the incident a lot of people were concerned about what this looked like for Tuesday morning’s commute and your group provided a working option for single-tracking around the incident area Tuesday morning but it looks like Metro didn’t even consider it. From where I sat Tuesday morning was a mess. How do you think Metro did Tuesday morning and what could they have done better to get riders around the incident on a normal commute?

[R] Well the recommendation we gave for Metro for Tuesday morning was pretty much to run service – we even recommended reduced service, 12 minute headways, from Glenmont to Union Station and from Farragut North to Shady Grove. The 12 minutes is to allow so that 1 8-car train could be used as a shuttle train between Farragut North and Union Station. We knew that this would require passengers riding through the incident to require 2 transfers however instead of having trains holding back to back or as we saw Tuesday morning skipping Farragut North.

[F] I think the other failure that I saw was WMATA’s managing of expectations. I think they over promised and under delivered on Tuesday and that seems to be a recurring theme. Do you think it’s better for them to just say hey look this is going to be a mess, we’re going to try for 15 minute headways? That honestly would scare people away from the system but they were getting 13-15 minute headways depending on where you go on – or if you could get on the train. So do you think it would be better if they started managing expectations better?

[R] Yes. If they had said 15 or even 20 minute headways at least people would have boarded the system with the expectation that “OK, it’s going to be 20 minutes between trains – either I’ll do an alternate form of transportation or I know what the wait’s going to be”. The idea of what most people want is a smooth commute – not the holding at a station for 2 minutes at 3 or 4 stations in a row and that’s what our plan was trying avoid. At least, for example, a commuter coming from Shady Grove would get on the train at Shady Grove, get off at Farragut North, walk across the platform, board a shuttle train, ride to Metro Center/Gallery Place and get off – easy commute. Instead of holding at Woodley Park, Dupont Circle, Farragut North and then have to single-track.

[F] Yeah, it was a mess. Again, one of the pleasures of a 2-track system but other places do it well so you can’t blame the 2 tracks. Is this another red flag for Metro? Was it a disaster that was narrowly missed? Or was it just something that happens?

[R] This one I would chalk up to this was more likely just it was an accident. This wasn’t something that I would really right at this point point the finger at Metro. We had a recent cold snap followed by a warm day turn around followed by another cold snap. The rails are steel. They’re metal. They’re going to break. You put the weight of any train – not jut necessarily the 7000 – fatigue and it will snap. It’s metal, it will snap. So it’s just an act of nature. It could be perfectly good rail, perfectly good inspections…

[F] It’s just gonna happen. So this isn’t something that we should probably go screaming about too loudly but again the way Metro handles these kinds of incidents could always be improved. You’ve provided an assessment on your website and I’m sure you’re going to keep that updated as the investigation goes along. Is there anything you want to say about your assessment so far?

[R] No, we pretty much put all the factual stuff went into that assessment. That’s pretty much how our group is going to stay is pretty much factual. Now, in incidents like Monday’s derailment we want to get an assessment or summary out as fast as we can…

[F] Preliminary assessment.

[R] Right. And that’s why we put on there at first is “preliminary”. For instance the first report we received from DC Fire that the first 7 cars had gone off the rails. Once I saw photos taken by passengers I realized all 7 weren’t off the tracks. And then that was confirmed later by Metro saying that the 3 cars had gone off. So there will always be little errors in major incidents just cause a lot’s going on there’s going to be communication issues, there’s going to be confusion. But we just want to at least give people an idea – this is what happened even though you’re seeing a multitude of tweets from various sources and everything this is the best thing that we’ve had – no speculation – we don’t think this is what might have caused the derailment. This is what’s happened in the timeline. That’s what you’re going to get.

[F] OK. So your group, again – in case someone missed my previous podcast – is a 100% publicly funded group that evaluates the operations, performance, and safety aspects of WMATA. And you are independent from WMATA which is very important. Your group, so far, is yourself, Steven, and James – so 3 guys and if riders want to support you, because you are 100% publicly funded, they can go to I myself am a Patreon sponsor of you guys. I really appreciate the work you do and Roger thanks for sitting down with me.

[R] Alright, thanks Chris. And one other note it’s actually more than 3 of us now. We have several more contracts, and contractors, and support.

[F] Oh, that’s fantastic – so you DO have good news for us! It’s not just the Metro mess. Fantastic. Thanks again, Roger.

[R] Thanks Christopher.

[end interview audio]

[closing music]

I hope you’ll join me again next time. Until then take care of yourself and your fellow rider – we’re all in this together!

If you would like to be featured on a future FixWMATA podcast or have segment suggestions please contact me at or on twitter @FixWMATA.

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The music used in the podcast comes from Ian Sutherland and a link to his music can be found on the website.

You can continue the conversation on Twitter by following @FixWMATA or searching the hashtag WMATA.