Critical review of Maryland Transit Administration finds lack of expertise, numerous other problems

When Maryland transit officials decided to close down Baltimore’s Metro Subway line for nearly four weeks for emergency repairs last winter, they relied on track inspection guidelines that didn’t comply with industry standards.

That was one of the key findings of an independent review of the Maryland Transit Administration that was conducted after the closure, which disrupted the commutes of thousands of people. Crews replaced 39,000 feet of degraded rails at a cost of $1.5 million.

After the shutdown highlighted safety concerns and maintenance problems with the system, the MTA asked the American Public Transportation Association to review its operations. The review, released Thursday, found numerous problems with the state transit agency and its approach to track inspections and maintenance, including poor communication, lack of expertise, insufficient use of technology and the failure to follow industry standards.

MTA Administrator Kevin Quinn promised extensive changes to his agency in response to the report.

“We are already taking steps in the right direction,” he said.

Quinn stressed that passengers have always been safe.

The guidelines that prompted the closure were part of a field guide for track inspections that the MTA put into place last year. They required the system to be shut down if a measurement of track wear — known as gauge face angle — reached a certain point. Such degraded tracks increase the risk of derailment, especially in curves.

But that guide did not follow industry standards, which call for inspectors to review multiple factors before shutting down a system.

“The industry standard is to not just look at one thing,” Quinn said. “The industry standard is to take into account the totality of rail conditions.”

If a proper field guide was in place, the MTA might not have needed to shut the system down, Quinn said.

Quinn said that “a variety of folks” were responsible for writing that field guide in 2017, and some of them are no longer with the MTA. Quinn said his staff plans to rework the field guide.

The flawed field guide was among several problems identified by a team from the public transit association that spent a week in Baltimore this spring, interviewing more than a dozen workers, reviewing nearly 100 documents and touring parts of the Metro Subway system, which runs from Owings Mills to Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Quinn said the review gave “an absolutely honest take on our system.”

Among the report’s additional findings:

» The MTA’s engineering and operations departments did not regularly discuss maintenance standards.

» Employees were not all using software systems that document inspections and work orders.

» Inspectors were using paper forms to log their observations.

» There was a high turnover and open positions among managerial staff.

» Orders to slow train speeds were given verbally and not always followed.

» There was an “excessive amount of garbage” at some stations.

» Employees were concerned about fatigue from working overtime.

» Front-line workers were not told about goals for on-time service.

Quinn said he’s still working on an “action plan” in response to the report, but he’s already taken several steps, including reorganizing some of his staff to improve communication and more clearly define responsibilities.

“We’ve got a great roadmap of how to fix it,” Quinn told reporters during a news conference Thursday at a bus depot in southwest Baltimore. “I think we’ve already taken some fantastic steps to fixing it with the reorganization, investing in training, software, those kinds of things.”

Top MTA leaders now receive track inspection reports weekly. The MTA plans to give inspectors tablets loaded with inspection software within the next three to four months at a cost of about $20,000.

And the state is currently soliciting bids from companies to inspect the tracks using a specialized “geometry car” that periodically runs the tracks to take precise measurements. Such a geometric evaluation first found problems with the gauge face angle readings in November 2016.

The prior contractor gave the MTA raw data that the agency struggled to process and understand, Quinn said. The new contract will require the contractor to explain its data and findings to the MTA.

Samuel Jordan, president of the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition, said he is not convinced that the MTA will make the necessary improvements.

Jordan said MTA officials have not been forthcoming with information. He pointed out that officials said they closed the Metro Subway track as soon as they found out about the gauge face angle readings in February, but the MTA actually had the readings from a geometric evaluation for more than a year.

“There’s little reason for the ridership and the general public to have much faith in MTA given their track record of misrepresentation of the most important facts,” Jordan said. “We want MTA to be held to a standard of accountability.”

He added: “As a transportation agency, MTA is decidedly out of touch with what riders and the region needs.”

Gov. Larry Hogan remains confident in Quinn — whom he elevated to the top job at the MTA last year “to address longstanding issues” — to continue to work to improve the agency, said Shareese Churchill, a spokeswoman for the governor.

“While the department has addressed many of the challenges cited in the review, the governor expects them to take all of the findings extremely seriously and work swiftly to address any remaining issues,” Churchill said.

Brian O’Malley, director of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, said the MTA needs more than a piecemeal approach to making improvements. The alliance is comprised of businesses, nonprofits and others who advocate for improved transportation.

“We need the Maryland Transit Administration to adopt best practices for identifying and evaluating every asset in the system to determine what it would cost to bring all of it to a good state of repair and then prioritize based on available funds,” he said.

The MTA has plans to spend $900 million over the next six years for improvements to the Metro Subway and Light Rail cars and rail systems.

The MTA also announced upcoming repair projects that will affect Metro Subway and Light Rail riders.

The Metro Subway will be reduced to a single track on weekends from Sept. 14 to Nov. 4 for track maintenance. Riders could experience 10-minute delays, according to MTA.

The Light Rail will be shut down between the Timonium Fairgrounds stop and the Hunt Valley stop from Sept. 14 to Oct. 4 for maintenance and track replacement. During the closure, Light Rail riders can use the LocalLink bus 93, which already runs between the affected stations.

pwood@baltsun.com

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UPDATES:

2:45 p.m. Friday: This story has been updated to remove a reference to the Federal Transit Administration, which said it “did not issue any reports or findings” related to the MTA’s Subway shutdown.

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