Tensions between the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and the largest labor union representing Metro employees tipped over twice this week amid labor contract negotiations, prompting service meltdowns across the rail system and delaying transit operations for hours on end.
Following the discovery of a mechanical hazard that dealt an employee an electrical shock during inspections of WMATA’s new 7000-series railcar last Saturday, the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 issued an urgent stand-down safety order for employees Thursday. This was done as a preventative measure until Metro engineers could ensure each railcar was safe for inspectors to work on.
The measure forced Metro leadership to pull hundreds of rail cars from the six-line system and shortened the length of trains to six-car arrangements during the morning rush hour. Service cuts extended into Thursday afternoon.
Metro announced it completed a review of ATU Local 689’s safety concerns at noon, saying its inspection procedures were appropriate and consistent with guidelines set by the railcar manufacturer; they continued inspections into the afternoon.
Metro Chief Safety Officer Patrick Lavin said Metro values safety over service, despite the inconveniences the employee stand-down caused commuters on the Red Line.
“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,” Lavin wrote in a statement. “We encourage the reporting of safety concerns, and thank our customers for their understanding as we place safety first.”
Meanwhile on Monday, thousands of Orange line commuters experienced delays as Metro single-tracked service, using only the line’s outbound track from New Carrollton to Cheverly, Md.
The decision to reduce service came after a construction delay Sunday night overran into the Monday morning commute. A mobile concrete mixer broke down during repairs of the Orange line on Sunday, prompting Metro to ask workers to mix concrete by hand and carry construction materials using wheelbarrows.
Still, though Metro leadership blamed its own equipment, ATU Local 689 countered with allegations of planning failures on WMATA’s part and blamed the construction delays on private contractors’ “shoddy” work.
“Metro could have avoided this morning’s delay if they had properly planned for the project and had Metro workers, who understand the work and system, complete it the first time,” the union wrote in a press release. “Here are many instances where contractors do shoddy work and Metro workers have to come back to correct their mistakes; today was one of those instances.”
Earlier this month, Metro announced their self-assessed improvements, stating that they were “showing signs of getting ‘back to good,’” a reference to WMATA’s ongoing “Back to Good” campaign to improve service and reliability. Most recently, WMATA completed its SafeTrack initiatives to improve infrastructure along Metro’s most used rail lines.
WMATA General Manager and CEO Paul J. Wiedefeld said Metro customers have seen fewer train offloads, better on-time performance and fewer unscheduled delays as a result of new railcars and improved maintenance programs.
“Our customers will determine when we are ultimately back to good, but I am confident we are on the way,” said Wiedefeld wrote in a Sept. 11 statement. “I am very proud of the thousands of Metro employees who are working day and night to improve safety and service for our customers.”
Despite these claims, WMATA is engaged in a back-and-forth discussion with ATU Local 689 over safety guarantees for employees, the role of private contractors in the second phase of construction of the Silver line extension to Washington Dulles International Airport and the cost of retirement benefits, wages, healthcare and pensions.
A three-member arbitration panel will now monitor negotiations between the two entities.