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Transportationby Mark Reutter and Fern Shen8:45 pmFeb 15, 20180

MTA had data a year ago that Metro tracks were dangerous

Report cites deficiencies in the agency’s track inspection program

Above: MTA’s announcement of a month-long system-wide shutdown took transit users by surprise. (MTA)

Back in November 2016, the Maryland Transit Administration was given data showing that sections of track on Baltimore’s Metro system were substandard and could lead to train derailments.

But the agency chose not to make emergency repairs until a second inspection, conducted late last month, so alarmed MTA Director Kevin Quinn that he ordered the entire Metro system to close for four weeks.

The November 2016 report had found that 17 sections of curved rail on the above-ground portion of the Metro exceeded the “gauge face angle” (GFA) standard of 26.

Under MTA track standards, which mirror federal standards, such track sections are in “black condition” and no train movement should be allowed over them.

MTA’s “Field Guide for Track Inspectors” manual is explicit on this point, saying that “the qualified person(s) detecting such condition should make every effort to correct the condition immediately.”

Despite these findings, the MTA under director Paul Comfort, who was ousted last June after it was found that he had improperly spent $65,000 to redecorate his office, continued to operate trains along the substandard track.

“The qualified person(s) detecting such condition should make every effort to correct the condition immediately.”  – MTA’s track manual

“We made an engineering decision based on the engineering folks and the inspectors that we could operate still safely,” Quinn told The Brew tonight, adding that he was not director at the time the decision was made. (Quinn was named MTA’s acting head on June 12, 2017.)

The 2016 data was contained in a report by the infrastructure consulting firm HNTB, which was included in an MTA news release today.

Quinn: Data was “Baseline”

Quinn said MTA inspectors had been “constantly monitoring the conditions” of the track over the last few months. He described the November 2016 findings as “a baseline” used to determine if the track had undergone further wear and tear.

He also noted that some transit lines, such as Philadelphia’s SEPTA system, use the GFA standard of 30 before considering track to be dangerous.

The Metro track sections identified in the November 2016 report as deficient had GFA readings ranging from 26.1 to 29.3.

Quinn said the agency was planning a major repair program this summer that would have included the replacement of track sections that exceeded the 26 GFA limit.

In preparation for that work, HNTB was hired to reinspect track on the western portion of the Metro.

Their inspection, conducted during the last week of January 2018, reconfirmed that the rail heads identified in November 2016 had been worn down from constant contact with train wheels and, in some cases, had higher GFA readings.

A rail head whose inner edge begins to slope at an angle increases the possibility that a train could derail. Higher GFA readings indicate worsening track conditions.

Inspection Program Criticized

The HNTB report recommended that MTA undertake “immediate action to enact emergency repairs” in keeping with the agency’s own engineering standards.

It also addressed deficiencies in the MTA’s track inspection program.

It said the agency should conduct independent track reviews “on a regular basis” and should verify the results in the field as soon as possible.

MTA inspectors also need to coordinate better with the engineering department and develop an effective program “to plan, schedule and correct [track] defects as soon as possible.”

The Metro carries 40,000 weekday riders over a 15-mile route between Owings Mills in Baltimore County and the Johns Hopkins Medical Center in East Baltimore.

The system is now set to be closed through March 11 as emergency track repairs are made. Quinn said the agency will use the shutdown to make safety improvements to bridges and other structures.

During the shutdown, a shuttle bus service is transporting riders between stations along the Metro route.

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