Fast Tracking Mobile Inspections
Following an electrical fire in the McPherson Square Metro Station tunnel on Monday leading to heavy delays throughout the day on Tuesday, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority officials in the nation’s capital made an unprecedented decision to close the nation’s second busiest subway system on Wednesday, March 16. The closing marked the first time Metro (WMATA) has closed for safety concerns since the underground railway system opened in March of 1976. The Metro shutdown disrupted the commute of over 700,000 passengers across the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia. Officials believe the fire was similar to the episode that occurred near the L’Enfant Plaza Station in January of 2015 when an electrical malfunction caused the tunnel to fill with smoke, resulting in the death of one passenger and injuring dozens more. The National Transportation Safety Board is expected to release a report on their findings of the L’Enfant Plaza incident next month.
Wednesday's WMATA shutdown prompted crews to inspect about 600 third-rail electrical cables. Paul J. Wiedefeld, WMATA’s general manager, reacted to Monday’s electrical fire by quickly calling a press conference Tuesday to announce Wednesday’s closure saying, “While the risk to the public is very low, I cannot rule out a potential life safety issue here, and that is why we must take this action immediately.” Wiedefield went on to say, “When I say safety is our highest priority, I mean it. That sometimes means making tough, unpopular decisions, and this is one of those times.” Closing at midnight on Tuesday for the emergency inspection, crews were assigned to evaluate more than 1,200 pieces of equipment. The total closure effected all six Metrorail lines and the entirety of its 91 stations.
Frequent Metro passengers turned to social media yesterday to express their frustrations over the systematic failure of Metro to correct safety issues brought to their attention over a year ago. In December of 2015, the Federal Transit Administration discovered more than 200 safety issues throughout the Metrorail system, some dating back to 2008. The discoveries prompted an order from the FTA to Metro to fix the issues in the system, or additional funds would be withheld. In addition, the FTA insisted that Metro create a new Metro agency; however, Metro has failed to create the agency, and persistent safety concerns peaked with the closure on Wednesday.
Although the shutdown yielded a massive track inspection of the entire Metrorail system, many are questioning why previous inspections had not identified the issues at an earlier time, and more importantly, why was nothing done to fix the safety issues? Dating back to the fatal incident in January of 2015, Metro failed to follow its own safety guidelines and made repairs to the rail system incorrectly. As part of an ongoing investigation, Metro executives refused to be interviewed about general processes for checking tracks for defects or how those defects are communicated to maintenance crews. WMATA Spokesman Dan Stessel stated, “the ongoing investigation is focused on determining who knows of the defect and where the breakdown occurred.”
If the Federal Transportation Administration required Metro to inspect its railways with Zerion and Gnosiz, would the Metro shutdown have occurred?
Simply, the answer is no. Had the Metro been using the Zerion platform following the tragedy at the L’Enfant Station, all 1,200 pieces of equipment would have been routinely inspected and electronically logged every time. During Wiedefield’s press conference on Wednesday evening to announce the locations of damaged track that were inspected, Metro was unable to display on a map exactly where the inspections took place. Had each inspection crew been armed with mobile devices and using the iForm app, General Manager Wiedefield could have identified the precise location of each inspection point using the record's metadata and would have had supporting images as appropriate. Once the inspection crew had completed the inspection, a real time data report would have immediately been sent to Metro officials for evaluation. Using the Zerion Platform, inspection crews would have had the ability to capture pictures of each safety breach within their electronic reports, again with the ability to share their finding in real time. Teams would not have been capturing data using paper and pencil and images using mobile devices, something that will require a lot of cleansing at a later point.
Implementing the Zerion platform after the January 2015 incident, Wednesday’s closure would not have existed. The iForm app does not allow inspector crews to bypass relevant information in their data collection process, an issue consistently overlooked by Metro officials. The collection of robust data, would have alerted officials immediately of any infrastructure breakdown and the exact location of the issue. After collecting a year’s worth of data, General Manager Wiedefield could have presented his findings to the FTA through concrete, easy to understand, documents, graphs, and charts displaying what repairs needed to be made to the Metrorail system, bypassing the need for a task force to be deployed and a year-long investigation to ensue. More importantly, WAMTA could have compiled all of this information in Gnosiz and created an accurate report on any aspect of the inspection process, including a precise dollar amount needed to repair the troubled Metrorail system.
The recent failures to adhere to safety standards and Wednesday’s closing ultimately pose a troubling PR obstacle for Metro to overcome. Many passengers stated Wednesday that they no longer trusted the Metro system and would not allow their children to take the railway in the future. Public trust of Metro has dwindled significantly in recent years from Metro’s lack of proper inspection protocol, a problem that would cease to exist with the implementation of Zerion. Zerion instantly reports any issues during the inspection process to administrators. As Metro continues to discover the gaps in their inspection process, it might be time to consider a new workflow using mobile technology.