Efforts to Repair Aging System Compound Metro's Problems
Lyndsey Layton and Jo Becker
5 June 2005
Washington's world-class subway system, which for three decades has shaped the metropolitan region and delivered thousands of commuters to work on time, has fallen into a decline -- and mismanagement has been a key factor, records show.
Trains break down 64 percent more often than they did three years ago, and the number of daily delays has nearly doubled since 2000. Although the vast majority of trains are on time, more than 14,400 subway riders a day are inconvenienced by a delay or a mechanical problem that forces them off broken trains.
Metro officials have spent nearly $1 billion in recent years to turn around the nation's second busiest subway system, but internal records show that the projects have created new problems.
To ease chronic crowding, Metro purchased 192 rail cars at a cost of $383 million. But the agency tried to rush the cars through production and often missed mistakes made on the assembly line. And on average, the new cars need major repairs almost as often as the oldest ones in the fleet.
Metro is spending an additional $382 million to rebuild rail cars bought in the 1980s. Officials failed to closely monitor the repair work, didn't catch mistakes and ignored warnings from auditors about the lack of supervision. The refurbished cars are now breaking down far more often than those that haven't been overhauled.
And a $93 million project to renovate 178 escalators has managed to make many of them worse. More than a third have been breaking down more often than they did before, a Washington Post analysis of Metro statistics shows. The project follows a failed attempt, also costing millions, to improve the aging machinery.
The performance of Metro carries extraordinarily high stakes, both for the system and the metropolitan area. The public invested more than $10 billion to build the subway. As its lines have spread across Washington and its suburbs, the system has fueled population growth, revitalized neighborhoods and stitched together a diverse region. Businesses select locations and families buy homes based on proximity to a Metro station. The subway is critical to the federal workforce. And people increasingly depend on it; since 2000, ridership is up 18 percent to more than 650,000 passengers daily.
In a region with some of the worst traffic in the country, access to reliable mass transit could determine whether the area continues to attract businesses and residents.
Christened in 1976 as "America's subway," Metro can claim real accomplishments. It created cathedral stations lauded by architects and built a 106-mile subway with few mishaps. It remains popular among commuters and tourists. And on Sept. 11, 2001, it proved critical to evacuating Washington.
Now, managers are grappling with problems ranging from train delays to bad publicity over rude customer service to a federal investigation into a November train crash. The agency is struggling to make the transition from a young rail system focused on constructing lines to a mature system that must maintain what it has built.
"It's a shame," said Brian Graff, an economist who rides regularly, as he stood on a Red Line platform at the Metro Center Station. "I think this was once the best subway system in the country, but you can't say that anymore."
Chief Executive Richard A. White, who has been running Metro for nearly nine years, traces many of the problems to record numbers of riders, aging equipment and a railroad design undersized for the job. If Metro had more money, he said, he could fix much of what ails the transit system and restore its luster.
At the moment, Metro is seeking $1.5 billion from Congress. That would come in addition to $1.8 billion recently approved by local and state governments as part of an emergency plan to maintain the system and avoid what White terms a "death spiral" of deteriorating service. Metro is also campaigning intensely for a long-term source of funding, such as a regional sales tax, to buy rail cars and buses and expand stations to accommodate growth.
But a tight budget does not fully explain Metro's decline.
Post reporters spent six months reviewing agency records, many of which never had been made public because Metro considers itself exempt from federal, state and local public records laws. Under pressure to become more accountable, Metro agreed to release the documents and has revised its public records policy.
The documents portray an insular and often byzantine bureaucracy that operates with little outside oversight, spending tens of millions of dollars on promised fixes that don't turn out as advertised. Even when problems were flagged, the records show, little was done to address them.
Responding to those and other findings during the preparation of this series of articles, White has been announcing changes by the week in the hopes of solving problems that have festered for years.
"Every piece of dirty laundry we have, you've found it. And some problems I didn't know about -- you've probably found those, too," he said. "My job now is to demonstrate that we're not blind to this stuff, and we are fixing whatever problems need to be fixed."
After commuting to work for four years in his Metro-issued sport-utility vehicle, White in October resumed riding the system he oversees. In February, he announced the resignation of his second in command and reorganized the agency for the third time since taking the helm. He brought in outside experts to tell him how to operate the system more efficiently. And he ordered closer supervision of the programs to buy and overhaul rail cars, dispatching his most trusted lieutenants to solve the mechanical problems that have plagued them.
White said that his agency has lacked clear "lines of authority" and that about "25 percent" of Metro's woes can be traced to poor management. But he said his changes are beginning to show results. In April, for instance, the troubled new rail cars had their best month yet, helping Metro reduce the overall number of train delays.
"These investments will pan out," White said. He said the system would be much worse off if the projects to upgrade cars and escalators had not been undertaken. And overall, he said, Metro is a safe, efficient system that serves its customers well.
But if it is going to meet the region's future needs, Metro must win the kind of ongoing, dedicated funding that goes to every other subway system in the country, he said. The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, for example, receives about a fourth of its $8 billion annual operating and capital budget directly from a portion of the state sales tax and other levies.
By contrast, Metro has to ask for operating subsidies each year from 10 governments in the Washington area. That forces it to compete with schools, police and other municipal needs for funds. A 2004 Brookings Institution study found that, unless it gets a stable source of income, Metro will be condemned to a future of red ink.
But even some transit advocates are questioning whether taxpayers can trust Metro with additional dollars. Gus Bauman, a former Montgomery County planner, in January voted in favor of automatic funding as part of a regional task force. But, Bauman said, "there's no way [White and his managers] can go to the public with some sort of tax proposal to save Metro without fixing this problem of management accountability."
White describes Metro's daily challenge this way: "One thousand, five hundred and thirty-eight times a day we run a train that has to make a total of 35,419 stops, and almost a million times a day doors have to open and shut properly. That's a lot of opportunity for things to go wrong."
As ridership has exploded, so has the number of delays caused by passengers. These incidents -- riders who stick briefcases into doors to keep them open, for example -- account for one of every five delays.
But the biggest cause of delays, by far, is mechanical problems with the rail cars. And Metro's efforts to improve the record, by overhauling old cars and buying new ones, aren't working very well.
On a recent morning at the Greenbelt rail yard, CAF car No. 5133 was perched high on a lift. It had broken down twice in the same week, this time because it wouldn't accelerate properly. Bob Popp, a Metro electrician, climbed a ladder into the car, tilted open one of the seats and hooked up a laptop to the diagnostic equipment that lay beneath.
"It's a CAF wiring problem," Popp told a manager after a few clicks of the keyboard.
Metro's $383 million program to buy nearly 200 rail cars from CAF Inc., a firm in Spain, has been marred by a series of highly visible problems as well as some the agency has yet to make public, including a possible design flaw that may be behind a string of derailments, records show.
"Those cars have been a headache from Day One," said Jackie Rhodes Jeter, a spokeswoman for Local 689 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, Metro's largest employee union, representing about 8,000 bus drivers, train operators, mechanics and other workers.
The new CAF cars suffer major mechanical problems almost as often as Metro's oldest rail cars, which were built in the 1970s. In fact, they traveled an average of only 319 miles farther -- or 7 percent -- before needing major repairs, an analysis of 12 months of Metro statistics shows. Problems with CAF cars caused passengers to be delayed once every 52,420 miles on average -- far short of the 72,000-mile goal Metro set when it bought the cars.
Those numbers include dramatic improvements the cars showed in March and April, the latest months for which Metro provided statistics. Some of that improvement is due to stopgap measures to reduce delays and problems, said Steven A. Feil, who took over Metro's rail operations last summer. Instead of pulling problem trains out of service for repairs, Metro is now running them unless they present a safety hazard, he said. Metro is trying to improve train performance by sending in workers to hand-scrub faulty electronic relays.
Feil acknowledged that those kinds of "quick fixes" cannot be sustained over time. He also has begun an aggressive effort to shore up the rail bed. Track problems cause nearly one in five passenger delays.
Meanwhile, four CAF trains derailed in less than 18 months. In each case, the trains derailed in places where the track was worn. None was carrying passengers, and all were operating at a low speed while rounding a sharp bend, typically found in rail yards and not on the main railroad. For those reasons, Metro officials have decided against pulling them from service.
Safety director Fred Goodine said he believes the risk of derailment for a CAF train filled with passengers is "negligible."
Still, Goodine pushed Metro to launch an investigation into whether the cars' design may make them prone to jumping the tracks, records show. Metro engineers insist the design is fine; the agency's safety officials are less certain.
"Based upon this and previous accidents . . . there seems to be something different . . . in the way the 5000 series cars negotiate tight spirals and curves," a safety report concluded after an Oct. 1 derailment.
When the CAF cars rolled off the assembly line with their red, white and blue interiors, they stood out from the orange hues of the rest of the fleet. The cars, the last of which were delivered in 2004, came equipped with sophisticated computer software, including the equivalent of an airliner's "black box" to give mechanics precise information about malfunctions. The cars also were the first to run all their electrical systems on alternating current, which produces less dust and is supposed to make the systems easier to maintain.
But CAF neglected to provide Metro with some technical documentation proving parts were installed properly, agency officials said. Other records were written in Spanish, leaving Metro managers unsure of what they were reading.
Although CAF had made rail cars for transit systems in other countries, Metro was its first U.S. customer. The Federal Transit Administration questioned Metro's decision to hire CAF, citing the contract in a 2000 audit as evidence that Metro doesn't always determine whether its contractors are technically qualified.
Software bugs on the highly automated cars bedeviled engineers; once they fixed one, they said, others would spring up. Records also point to basic manufacturing defects: faulty wiring, sloppy assembly and substandard materials that Metro had approved. As of May, Metro officials said, they had made 170 engineering changes to try to correct flaws.
Still, the cars' performance has remained erratic. Some months, they seemed to improve, but then their reliability would plummet again, records show. "They're possessed," said Thomas E. Ferer, a senior Metro operations analyst.
Many of the defects were not discovered until after the cars were built because Metro and CAF failed to perform sufficient checks along the assembly line to monitor the manufacturing process, according to records and interviews with Metro officials. CAF wasn't consistently checking the quality of parts delivered by suppliers and was rushing the cars through testing, Metro documents show. And agency inspectors didn't object when inferior materials were used.
CAF's American representative, Virginia Verdeja, said the company would not comment.
As the cars went into service, defects were evident, records show. Some wouldn't accelerate, others had faulty air conditioning, still others had persnickety doors that often refused to close.
In 2001, with 78 cars built, Metro took the unusual step of halting production for three weeks. It told CAF to improve quality and redesign its assembly line. Production resumed, but troubles with the cars continue.
In January 2002, a 58-year-old woman got her arm caught in a door and was dragged along the platform at Gallery Place because of a faulty door circuit in a CAF car. An investigation found that the circuit was poorly soldered at the factory -- a problem that should have been caught by Metro and CAF inspectors responsible for testing the components before the car was put into service.
Two months later, a fire erupted on another CAF car. Metro traced the problem to an incorrectly wired heater. The problem was found on 33 other CAF cars, despite the fact that CAF and Metro employees had inspected and approved the wiring of the heaters, according to an internal investigation.
More recently, Metro managers discovered that the floors of the cars are cracking and peeling beneath the carpet, prompting concerns that they will have to be replaced. Records show Metro approved the use of a flooring material that was inferior to what was initially required in the contract.
Metro managers now agree that an unrealistic schedule is partly to blame for the flaws. The agency ordered a rush job because its board of directors wanted to open five Green Line stations by January 2001. "We were racing to beat the clock," White said.
As it turned out, the cars were two years late because of the corrections that had to be made.
Metro officials note that CAF reimbursed Metro $5 million for consulting fees and other costs the agency incurred because the cars were delivered late. Metro has yet to pay CAF more than $26 million that it owes, a sum officials said gives Metro some leverage to ensure that problems are corrected.
White recognized that many of the problems should have been caught by Metro and three years ago strengthened the quality assurance department by giving it more autonomy.
"We learned our lesson," White said.
But records show the agency repeated many of the mistakes it made with its purchase of the CAF cars in its next large rail car project: rebuilding older cars to extend their lives.
On the morning of April 6, rail cars Nos. 2066 and 2067 clattered into the Alexandria yard shortly after breaking down on the Blue Line. Hundreds of passengers had been left on the platform at the Capitol South Station at 8:05 a.m. after a door problem prevented the operator from moving the train.
The mechanics at Alexandria were familiar with the two cars; both had been sidelined the day before with mechanical problems. Both were Breda cars, built by the Italian firm Breda Costruzioni Ferroviarie in the early 1980s. And both had recently undergone an expensive refurbishment.
Metro is spending $382 million to overhaul 364 Breda cars. The cars need new propulsion, braking and train control systems, among other upgrades.
Two at a time, they are loaded onto a special tractor-trailer and driven six hours north to the Hornell, N.Y., plant of French engineering giant Alstom Transportation Inc. There, workers strip the cars to their metal skeletons and rebuild them with new components or remanufactured parts. They sandblast the aluminum frames, repair cracks and repaint the exteriors. The interiors get a makeover in the red, white and blue color scheme of the CAF cars.
The process takes about 60 days for each car and is meant to ensure that they last another 20 years.
But it has not made the cars more reliable. Over the past year, records show that the renovated cars suffered major mechanical problems 72 percent more often than those that did not undergo the expensive work and were twice as likely to cause delays. Doors won't close properly, the automatic train control and auxiliary power malfunction and the trains don't always stop precisely, a Metro evaluation in late March found. The performance of the rebuilt Breda cars is so poor, it is dragging down the reliability of the entire Metrorail fleet.
"Those cars are killing me," said Feil, who needs 758 functioning cars every morning to meet rush hour demand.
White and others say quality is a problem that haunts the entire U.S. transit industry, in part because so few companies make or rebuild rail cars. Unlike automobiles, rail cars are built to order, so there is little standardization or opportunity to work out kinks from one generation of cars to the next.
He points to Boston, where the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority recently canceled a $225 million contract with Breda after new rail cars derailed nine times and were breaking down three times more often than the rest of its fleet.
During the rehabilitation of its Breda cars, White said Metro has been careful to monitor Alstom's work. "We ride these guys and manage these contracts with a level of vigilance and manpower that is very high," he said.
But auditors in Metro's quality assurance department repeatedly warned that the agency's failure to oversee the program was to blame for many of the problems.
In July 2002, Metro auditors visited Alstom's plant and concluded that while the company was committed to providing a good product, Metro was making it difficult. Metro engineers had approved questionable wiring material and techniques, for example, without justifying that the wiring would work as well or last as long as required by the contract, auditors found.
Booz Allen Hamilton, the consultant hired by Metro to ensure quality in manufacturing, was conducting only "loosely structured inspections" of the cars without adequately documenting the cause of problems and the steps being taken to prevent them from recurring, auditors said.
Metro's oversight of the program had suffered a "breakdown" that must be quickly addressed, they concluded. "Time is of the essence," auditors warned.
Despite the warnings, problems persisted.
One of the first rebuilt Breda cars caught fire during a 2003 test run, the result of an electrical wiring problem, records show. In May 2004, Metro's auditors found that the cars that had been returned to service were hobbled by poor propulsion, badly installed door hardware and water leaks from evaporator assemblies.
Two months later, auditors once again targeted Booz Allen, saying that the ways it monitored production and inspected completed cars "clearly require improvement." Metro has paid Booz Allen more than $13.1 million for its management of the Breda contract, according to agency officials.
Booz Allen spokesman George Farrar said that "all of the issues that were raised in those various audits have been resolved to the satisfaction of [Metro's] management."
Alstom officials said in a statement that with a project of this magnitude, some adjustments are always necessary. The company said it is working closely with Metro to improve the reliability of the cars. "Both teams agree that there are problems and we are now working together to fix them," the statement said.
Rich Buettner, Metro's chief quality assurance auditor, was blunt in assessing the extent to which the problems with CAF and Breda cars could be blamed on Metro's poor oversight: "Most of it." While Buettner had raised alarms about both contracts, he had no authority to force the operations department that managed the contracts to act on his recommendations.
"It was frustrating," Buettner said, particularly because "the thing we were fighting for was to ensure that we got our money's worth."
In March, White reassigned the job of managing the projects from the operations department to P. Takis Salpeas, a Metro assistant general manager whose department built the railroad. Salpeas has since announced that his engineers had found part of the problem: a faulty electronic relay in the automatic train control system in the CAF and Breda cars. Though the relay has been swapped out twice before, Salpeas said he is crossing his fingers that the latest replacement, as well as repairs to the doors, will do the trick. "If we're lucky, come Christmas you're going to see tremendous improvement," he said.
Feil said it is too early to tell whether that prediction will bear out. "I'm cautiously optimistic," he said.
Maryland Secretary of Transportation Robert L. Flanagan reacted to the Post's findings by saying it is "outrageous" that Metro's senior managers failed to disclose the role they played in the problems with the CAF and Breda contracts, particularly since Maryland and other jurisdictions have pledged $1.8 billion to the agency.
"We've made a commitment . . . for a substantial infusion of funding," he said. "This information causes us grave concern about whether we're going to get value for that increased investment."
Database editor Sarah Cohen contributed to this report.