Metro’s regular weekday bus service will return February 7; the search continues for a new GM

Metro announced on Thursday it would resume regular weekday bus service early next month, a sign that transit agency workers are returning after the omicron variant sidelined drivers and forced the agency to cut back service for about a month.

The return of a weekday bus schedule starting Feb. 7 will end one of Metro’s service crises. The rail system continues to operate with a shortage of trains, leading to prolonged waits for passengers amid a safety investigation of all 748 of its 7000-series railcars.

The series makes up more than half of Metro’s fleet and has been sidelined since October 17.

The transit agency must also find a replacement for Paul J. Wiedefeld, 66, who announced last week that he would retire in six months. Metro Board Chairman Paul C. Smedberg said Thursday that a nationwide search is underway and his priority is to find a chief executive who can help Metro attract new riders as telecommuting flies. more and more commuters.

Wiedefeld announced the restoration of Metrobus service Thursday at a Metro board meeting. The bus system had been running about a quarter less service on weekdays since January 10 due to a lack of drivers.

Metro cuts bus service as it faces surge in coronavirus infections

Since Christmas, about 1,500 workers, or 10% of Metro’s workforce, have been unemployed for some time due to the coronavirus, Wiedefeld said. The absenteeism rate is the highest since the start of the pandemic.

“While we are still experiencing above average absenteeism, we have seen the rate of cases decrease and employees are returning to work following their quarantine requirements,” he said.

The move comes as parents of DC children have complained that buses miss stops and leave public school students stranded. Earlier this month, five DC Council members wrote Wiedefeld a letter asking him to expand bus service — or at least run a reduced service on time — and make coronavirus testing more efficient and less restrictive for unvaccinated drivers.

Even after full service resumes, Wiedefeld said, some routes could still experience delays due to pandemic-related driver shortages.

“We all know we’re not out of it yet, so we’ll be watching that very closely,” he said.

Wiedefeld said 93% of Metro’s workforce is vaccinated, up from 85% just before Christmas. Since October, the transit agency has required employees to get vaccinated or provide weekly test results. Wiedefeld said 97% of employees complied with the policy.

Shortage of bus operators due to Covid prompts Metro to cut bus service

He said Metro continues to work to determine what causes the wheels of some 7000 series cars to widen, putting them at risk of derailment. The National Transportation Safety Board discovered the defect while investigating the derailment of a Blue Line train on Oct. 12.

The Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, a regulatory agency that oversees safety on the rail system, suspended the series before briefly reinstating the cars when Metro offered to inspect the wheels daily. But the commission reimposed the suspension on Dec. 29 when inspectors found Metro had deviated from its inspection guidelines.

Metro, in turn, said it would take until April to investigate the defect and figure out more efficient ways to perform axle inspections.

“We should be pretty optimistic at this point that we can come to a conclusion,” Smedberg said in an interview after the board meeting.

In the meantime, Wiedefeld said, Metro has put more 6000-series cars into service. The series, which includes 184 cars, is being phased in after inspections and repairs to the device that ties the cars together. At least three trains had separated in recent years, forcing Metro to suspend the line in November 2020.

Metro CEO retires after six years as senior executive

Smedberg also detailed how Metro plans to find Wiedefeld’s replacement. He and board members Lucinda M. Babers, Sarah Kline and James F. Ports Jr. make up the committee working with Krauthamer & Associates, a Bethesda-based executive search firm, to recruit and screen candidates.

Smedberg said Metro’s next chief executive should focus on safety, customer service and the financial outlook for the transit system, which remains challenging as rail ridership is mired at 20% of levels. before the pandemic. Metro, like all transit agencies, lost telecommuting clients.

“Metro definitely needs a CEO who will continue to partner with the board to lead Metro into the future with bold ideas that address a number of issues we’re facing right now,” said said Smedberg. “We are committed to finding the right leader, but it will take time.”

The research, Smedberg said, will be private, but the committee will periodically update the public starting next month.

Metro’s next leader will face ridership challenges and a looming ‘financial cliff’

On Thursday, council members also approved renaming the Largo Town Center station to Downtown Largo at the request of Prince George’s County. County officials want to rename the area around the station and will pay the $332,000 needed to change signs and registrations. Board member Tracy Hadden Loh voted against the change, saying at an earlier meeting that she thought tagging it downtown might confuse tourists and other cyclists.

Metro executives also heard a report from the Office of the Metro Inspector General that the transit agency does not keep adequate controls or records on the use of fuel by employee vehicles. Investigators said tests showed more than $2 million worth of fuel, or 1.17 million gallons, went unaccounted for between the summer of 2016 and the summer of 2020.

“The OIG was unable to validate these transactions as legitimate because current and former employees could easily pump fuel into unauthorized vehicles, using codes that gave the appearance of a valid transaction,” the statement said. ‘audit.

The report says more than 4,500 gallons of fuel were pumped without proper authorization using 211 different employee identification numbers.

Metro’s chief operating officer, Joseph Leader, wrote in a response to the inspector general that he had confidence in Metro’s controls and that the losses alleged in the audit amounted to 3% of Metro’s fuel spent on a period of two years. He said Metro would strengthen controls, including considering whether it could purge former employee IDs on a daily basis rather than weekly, as it currently does.

Melvin Z. Madore