The union that represents Maryland Transit Administration drivers warned agency leaders of rail safety concerns about the Baltimore Metro SubwayLink more than two years before the agency suddenly shut the entire system down for a month of emergency track repairs in February.
With less than 24 hours’ notice, the MTA closed the city’s subway line that serves more than 40,000 riders a day between Owings Mills and Johns Hopkins Hospital for the second time in less than two years. The repairs involved replacing tracks, especially in curves, that had worn to the point that derailment was a risk at normal speeds.
In a Nov. 12, 2015, letter to then-MTA chief Paul Comfort, David McClure, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1300, raised concerns about the safety of the tracks.
“For several months, we have attempted to schedule meetings with your office on these important safety issues,” McClure wrote. “None have taken place.”
The letter was among more than a dozen communications regarding the Metro’s state of repair among union and state transportation officials since 2015, obtained by The Baltimore Sun in response to a Maryland Public Information Act request.
The MTA released an inspection report in February that showed the tracks had not met safety standards since at least November 2016. But the agency denied The Sun’s request for five years’ worth of track inspection reports and work orders for the Metro, citing an ongoing internal investigation.
The Maryland Department of Transportation MTA “takes the safety and well-being of our passengers and system very seriously,” said Kevin Quinn, the MTA’s current administrator, in a statement late Friday. “This commitment to safety and continued operations is matched by robust capital improvement and operating budgets.”
Quinn said the MTA replaced more than 25,000 feet of rail from March 2015 through July 2016 — different sections of track from those repaired in February’s emergency shutdown.
In another letter on May 26, 2016, McClure told the MTA that union members were being discouraged from reporting safety issues
“The Union has recently received information that Members are being intimidated and coerced by the MTA management staff into not reporting and filing health and safety violations,” McClure wrote.
“It should be noted,” Quinn said in his statement, “that MDOT MTA does not tolerate intimidation or coercion of any kind from its employees.”
In that letter, McClure also raised specific rail safety concerns: “track issues,” “cracks in tracks” and maintenance issues, among others. He again stressed that the union had been trying for months to schedule a meeting with the agency and that none had taken place. The union also complained about rat infestation, flooding and general disrepair at the Mondawmin Metro Station.
On June 17, 2016, MTA officials visited Mondawmin with union officials, and “further safety issues” were uncovered, McClure wrote in one letter. Less than a month later, on July 12, the MTA announced a partial shutdown of the Metro for three weeks of critical rail maintenance work between Mondawmin and Milford Mill stations.
In a letter the next day, McClure wrote that the union “has done more than its due diligence over the past seven months to inform the MTA of these issues and has been met with callous disregard for the responsibilities of MTA management to ensure safe working conditions and a safe system for riders.”
“At best, the current approach being pursued is a result of complacency,” he added. “At worse [sic], it seems aimed at guiding the system into an unnecessary state of crisis that could be leveraged to justify political objectives like privatization or further divestment from Baltimore City’s transportation system.”
This came about a year after Gov. Larry Hogan canceled the Red Line, an east-west light rail line through Baltimore that had been approved for federal funding.
Two days after the 2016 shutdown was announced, the union issued a press release accusing the MTA of neglecting to address track gaps, fire hazards, electrical hazards, ventilation system problems and emergency exit blockages.
“There are actual gaps between the tracks that have resulted in speed reductions so as to avoid rail derailments,” the union wrote in the July 14, 2016, release. The union said it “began to formally notify the MTA about these problems and others more than a year ago.”
Comfort replied in a letter the same day that the MTA had addressed the problems at Mondawmin, including the fire sprinkler system, exposed wiring and emergency exit blockages.
“This is in addition to the repair of over 30,000 feet of deficient track on our Metro system within the past year,” Comfort wrote.
But four months later, a geometric evaluation of the Metro system found that tracks in 17 turns had “deteriorated to the point where no train movement is allowed.” That evaluation was cited in the decision to shut down the system 15 months later.
“From November 2015 to present, MDOT MTA has taken numerous actions to address Metro maintenance and safety issues including reaching out to the ATU Local 1300 for their input...,” Quinn said in a statement. That included several tours of Mondawmin station with the union to identify and address issues.
“MDOT MTA makes every effort to ensure that all interested parties are kept informed of relevant repair projects,” Quinn said.