WMSC: You’re certifying operators without all their training. WMATA: No we’re not (2023)

WMSC: You’re certifying operators without all their training. WMATA: No we’re not (1)

Disagreements, misunderstandings, and seeming mistrust caused a(nother) conflict to spill out into the open last week between WMATA and the body that oversees Metrorail safety. Riders were spared any short-term negative consequences, but the longer-term impacts are as of yet unknown.

The Washington Metrorail Safety Commission (WMSC) found during investigations that WMATA is “deliberately” failing to ensure that its train operators have completed all of their required training before operating trains with passengers onboard. The Commission charged that WMATA is “placing service over safety” and senior WMATA Operations leadership are purposefully failing to provide trains for new employees to finish their training on, and instead prioritizing those trains for running scheduled service.

WMATA disagrees, countering that all of its operators are fully trained.

On Friday, January 13, the transit agency issued a press release saying it had found “deviations” in the training that 64 train operators received during recent training classes. The agency says that training given to several recent groups of students “did not follow the proper sequence” required when new employees are training to become rail operators.

The next series of events were a whirlwind: WMATA received a directive on Friday, January 13, from the WMSC to remove those operators from service; the WMATA Board of Directors convened an “emergency” Sunday afternoon closed-door meeting on January 15; the agency held a press conference on Monday January 16, to rebut the Commission, appealed their directive, and said trains would come less often while it caught up on training; and ended late in the afternoon of January 16 with the WMSC giving WMATA another week to get the training done.

WMSC: You’re certifying operators without all their training. WMATA: No we’re not (2)

This confusion probably could’ve been cleared up with a phone call

(Video) Metro General Manager and Board Members Held a Virtual Media Briefing on Rail Service

WMATA says employees training to operate trains undergo “extensive training” which includes:

  • Several weeks of classroom training with an instructor
  • A written exam that must be passed for certification
  • Eight weeks of Yard Practical Training (YPT) which includes eight hours of in-person, non-passenger training (operating an empty train without passengers) with an instructor on the mainline (the Metrorail tracks that run between stations)
  • 30 hours in revenue service (trains with passengers) with an instructor
  • A practical exam that must be passed for certification
  • Follow-up 30/60/90 day assessment

The training given to the 64 employees in question “did not follow the proper training sequence,” notes the WMATA press release. But according to the WMSC, the agency had simply not been providing the required training:

“The WMSC identified through our investigative and other oversight activities that Metrorail was actively ignoring its train operator training and certification processes that are designed to provide for the safety of riders, workers and others,” noted WMSC spokesperson Max Smith in an emailed statement, adding that “The WMSC is concerned that Metrorail may be progressing untrained operators and preventing trainees from getting necessary training due to pressures to operate scheduled service, rather than based on a demonstration of their ability to operate safely or Metrorail’s ability to operate that scheduled service safely.”

By skipping the full operator training process, the WMSC claims “Metrorail is deliberately ignoring these safety requirements.”

The WMSC is one of 31 federally-required State Safety Oversight agencies tasked with overseeing transit rail safety where it exists. The agency has enforcement power to compel WMATA to take action it deems necessary, whereas the WMSC’s predecessor, the Tri-State Oversight Committee, did not.

WMSC: You’re certifying operators without all their training. WMATA: No we’re not (3)

WMATA disagrees with the oversight body, but acknowledges missteps

(Video) Metro Board of Directors Meeting June 9, 2022

The transportation agency held a press conference on Monday, January 16, in which Board members, the agency’s General Manager/Chief Executive Officer, and Chief Safety Officer (CSO) pushed back on the WMSC’s framing.

WMATA leaders say that all of their operators are fully trained and are not underqualified. Theresa Impastato, the CSO, set out to correct the record, noting that WMATA had implemented a “modified process” for training new operators during 2022, but that it was not at all unsafe.

Prior to the modified process, operators were required to complete eight hours of operations training with an instructor without passengers onboard, and then progress to 30 hours of training with both passengers onboard and an instructor.

The modification allowed WMATA to combine the two sets of training into one; as long as an operator completed at least 38 hours of training with an instructor, whether it was on an empty train without passengers or a full one with passengers, the operator could count that time towards their certification requirement.

WMATA says the training modification was implemented due to the agency’s ongoing lack of trains available for service. Given concurrent demands for trains to be used for training vs those to be used for operations, staff at the agency looked at the training change as a way to ease the training train burden, and at the time not adding a new safety risk.

Randy Clarke, WMATA’s GM, reiterated that, “Every train operator [certified by WMATA] has the full complement of 38 hours of training, by an instructor, in a cab, and has passed a written exam.”

Impastato acknowledged during the press conference that the agency had not notified the WMSC of the training change, but indicated that there is no requirement to do so. “WMATA should have notified the Safety Commission of this change” in the interest of transparency, she added.

(Video) T&E Committee Session, 6/1/2022 #1

WMSC: You’re certifying operators without all their training. WMATA: No we’re not (4)

An operator ran a red signal one week after becoming certified

Part of the WMSC’s investigation into the training issue began after an incident on December 6, 2022, where a Blue/Orange/Silver line train operator failed to stop at a red signal outside of the Smithsonian station. The operator, who had newly been certified for the first time a week prior, “did not know where they were in the system,” and passed a red signal, misunderstanding an instruction from a Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC) controller, reported WMSC CEO David Mayer during the commission’s December board meeting.

While the operator received permission to berth at the Smithsonian station, Mayer says that they did not recognize they were at Smithsonian already, so continued on towards Federal Triangle and ran through a red signal in between the two stations. The signal had been set to red to protect workers on the tracks from trains entering their work area.

According to the WMSC, the operator involved in the red signal violation (RSV) was one of the operators for whom WMATA skipped some of the training steps. “Records show that the train operator involved in the December 6, 2022, red signal overrun completed only 9 minutes of the 8 hours of required time actually operating a train [without passengers onboard] during yard practical training,” notes the WMSC in feedback sent to WMATA. Further, they found that “The train operator’s post-event investigative interview and radio recordings related to this event demonstrate that the operator had not reached the required understanding to safely operate the train in this event, even though they had just been certified the week before.”

Mayer noted that WMATA has an existing Correction Active Plan requiring the agency to improve its “physical characteristics” training so employees can confidently know where exactly they are in the rail system. The commission had previously found this deficiency in WMATA’s training practices during audit activities conducted earlier in 2021 and 2022.

Service, safety, and training tradeoffs

(Video) Metro Board of Directors Meeting July 14, 2022

The WMSC’s investigation into the December 6 incident, combined with earlier audit findings and WMATA actions, led its Chief Operating Officer (COO) to send notice on Friday to WMATA outlining their concerns. Broadly, the three concerns relate to: operators being put into service without all the necessary training; trains not being made available for operator training to occur; and a lack of urgency from Metro to address identified issues.

Metrorail Operations leadership “directed senior managers to make no trains available for training,” alleges the WMSC note, “and instead that available trains could only be used for passenger service.” Since non-revenue training with an instructor is a required part of certification before an operator can run trains with passengers onboard, this would effectively ground WMATA’s train operator certification process – including recertifications – to a halt.

WMATA was short about 60 operators per day from what its schedules specify, according to the last WMSC Board meeting held in December. The staffing limitation not only limits the number of trains that Metro can run in service with passengers, but can contribute to employees unsafely working too many hours and shifts.

WMATA’s Chief Safety Officer previously found last year that almost half the agency’s entire staff of train operators had lapsed on their certifications, in part due to a “waiver” process approved by WMATA’s former COO which allowed operators to push back their training up to about a year. That COO, along with WMATA ’s former General Manager, were forced out not long thereafter.

A WMSC audit conducted last year of Metrorail operations also found that the agency wasn’t providing enough trains for training, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and issues with Metrorail’s 6000-series railcars. At the time of that audit, the WMSC noted that WMATA doesn’t reserve trains for training, and schedule changes due to the pandemic removed some trains which could otherwise have been used for training.

In that prior audit, the WMSC noted that tension between operations and training “has existed for many years,” but that they had “become more acute…since March 2020” and the pandemic.

The latest findings of under-certified (in the WMSC’s opinion) rail operators from January 2023 are additional, says Smith, and not simply the earlier training issues being rehashed.

(Video) Metro Board of Directors Meeting September 8, 2022

Disclosure: GGWash Board of Directors Chair Tracy Hadden Loh is also on WMATA’s board. In keeping with our editorial policy, board members maintain no oversight of editorial decision-making.


1. Metro Board of Directors Meeting May 26, 2022
2. Metro Board of Directors Meeting July 14, 2022
3. Metro Board Activities October 14, 2021
4. Metro Board Activities July 15, 2021
5. Metro Board Committee Meetings
6. Copy of Metro Board of Directors Meeting September 8, 2022
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