DC Metro worker shocked while working on new train, prompting safety concerns-ATU 689 demanded an emergecy “safety stand-down,"

DC Metro worker shocked while working on new train, prompting safety concerns-ATU 689 demanded an emergecy “safety stand-down,"


The stand-down meant fewer trains were available Thursday morning, causing significant crowding. . (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
By Martine Powers September 21 at 7:30 PM
Metro riders endured another horrendous commute Thursday morning after the agency’s union demanded an emergency “safety stand-down,” refusing to conduct mandatory inspections on new 7000-series trains after a mechanic was shocked while working on one of the rail cars.

Because rail cars must be inspected regularly before they go into service, the stand-down meant there were fewer trains available Thursday, causing significant crowding and delays. Riders’ frustrations were compounded because Metro did not alert customers to the problem until the end of the morning rush.

Hours later, Metro officials declared the electric problem on the cars had been investigated and they were deemed safe; service returned to normal for the afternoon commute.

Metro said a review, conducted by the agency’s engineers and engineers from the rail car manufacturer, Kawasaki, determined inspection procedures in place for mechanics working on the trains are “appropriate and consistent with manufacturer guidelines.”

The agency said it would conduct additional safety briefings with mechanics to ensure they weren’t at risk.

“Part of creating a safety culture means taking immediate action to address concerns raised by employees. If a concern cannot be immediately resolved or requires further investigation, sometimes additional steps — such as a safety stand-down — must be taken in an abundance of caution,” Metro Chief Safety Officer Patrick Lavin said in a statement. “We encourage the reporting of safety concerns, and thank our customers for their understanding as we place safety first.”

But union leaders said the agency has not done enough to protect workers, many of whom fear they are at risk while performing routine maintenance on Metro’s newest fleet of cars.

Problems began late Wednesday when Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 demanded the stand-down after learning of an incident Saturday, in which a mechanic was shocked at a West Falls Church rail yard while he worked on a 7000-series car.

According to an incident report obtained by The Washington Post, the mechanic indicated the shock was “light” and left no visual burns, and he was taken to Inova Fairfax Hospital for evaluation.

After Saturday’s incident, all maintenance work ceased on the 7000-series train while the situation was assessed.

According to the incident report, “it appears that car R7022 lost all grounding capabilities,” indicating the car had electrical current running through it.

The problem was traced to the “ground brushes,” which are circuits attached to the rail car axles and help return electric current from the train back to the rail. The components are located underneath the train cars and inaccessible to passengers.

The union alleged Metro knew of the shock risk from the cars and did nothing about it.

“Metro knew of these electrical shocks since at least January, but covered it up and only decided to take action today because there was a victim involved who could have been killed,” the union said in a statement Wednesday night. “These actions are an abject failure to implement an effective safety culture when it should be Metro’s number one priority.”

[Metro and union bicker over who was responsible for Monday’s Orange Line mess]

Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said agency officials have no knowledge of previous shock incidents related to the same components on the 7000-series cars.

They also have notified the Federal Transit Administration, which has safety oversight of the rail system. Neither the FTA, nor Kawasaki responded to requests for comment Thursday.

The electricity issue — flagged as a “hazardous condition” in an internal memo — did not pose a threat to passengers, Stessel said, because there are secondary safety systems in place on the trains that ensure stray electric current does not reach other parts of the train.

The stand-down was the latest dispute between union leadership and Metro management as the relationship between the two sides continues to erode. The two are entering arbitration after failing to reach a contract and are at odds on a variety of issues including pay and benefits, assaults on bus operators by customers and the use of contractors.In a statement Wednesday afternoon, the union said the shock incident “could have ended in death or serious injury” and was one of several significant safety mishaps that have occurred to rail maintenance workers this year while servicing 7000-series trains, though it did not provide details on the nature of any of the other incidents.

On Monday, Metro sent a bulletin to mechanics about the problem. Another went out to train operators, warning them the problem “could pose a potential safety hazard,” and if the screen in the cab of the train indicated there was a lack of third rail voltage, they should immediately contact the Rail Operations Control Center and take the train out of service once they reached the end of the line.

Union officials said the response wasn’t adequate and Wednesday evening delivered a demand for a “safety stand-down” — an immediate action in which all work stops until a problem is investigated and deemed safe.

Though Metro agreed to the stand-down shortly before midnight Wednesday, it was not until 8:50 a.m. Thursday that Metro sent an email alert to riders, informing them to expect fewer trains, longer average waits between trains, and more crowded trains — due in part because many more trains than usual were composed of six cars, rather than eight.

Stessel said officials didn’t expect the cutback in rail cars to have as significant an impact on riders as it did.

“From a rail operations perspective, early morning service was relatively normal,” Stessel said. “When it became clear that there could be a customer effect, we issued a release.”Stessel said Metro has a longer-term fix on the way: Kawasaki is building new components for the cars, which will be installed on all the cars that are yet to be manufactured and delivered to Metro.

For the more than 350 7000-series rail cars that have already arrived, they will be retrofitted with a new design for the ground brushes.

[Contract talks collapse between Metro and its biggest union, triggering arbitration]

Faiz Siddiqui contributed to this report.

Martine Powers writes about the Metro transit system and the wonky world of transportation. Follow @martinepowers