Train Operators Using Pocket Tracks as Bathrooms

[All names are fictitious]

This issue is actually in the news as I type this.

The WMATA Inspector General’s report, “Control Self-Assessment – Employee Safety in the Office of Track and Structures Systems Maintenance” was recently made public (see

The report is the result of meetings with front line employees (including some of my coworkers) as well as a survey that most Metro employees (including myself) filled out this past summer.

One of the issues that is covered in the report is the ongoing problem of operators urinating (and occasionally defecating) in the “pocket track” areas of the system. For those who may not know, a pocket track is a third track between the two main tracks that is typically used to temporarily store trains to enable the operator to reverse their direction of travel.  There is a lot of ATC equipment in the pocket tracks and needless to say, this behavior makes working on that equipment “unpleasant and unsanitary” at best, and potentially unsafe.

This has been going on for decades and neither the union nor management have done much to resolve the problem.

I first became aware of it when I was bumped from Shady Grove (A99) to Grosvenor (A11) in the Spring of 1994, after working at A99 for almost 10 years. Talk about a change! The A99 territory covered down to (and including) White Flint (A12). We rarely went any further inbound so I wasn’t very familiar with A11. The A11 territory is older and mostly underground. It really was like working for a different subway system.

A11 has a pocket track and it was routinely used as a bathroom by train operators. Getting it cleaned (using a flatbed and a steam cleaner) was like pulling teeth. My supervisor’s boss, Adolph, was a truly mean, petty tyrant. Instead of doing his best to help me, he kept putting road blocks in my way. He refused to do anything until I had submitted a report to him detailing the exact nature of the problem (let’s see, how to put this…) and explaining why the area needed to be cleaned. I had to write out my report by hand, because we didn’t have computers (we wouldn’t get them until about 10 years later) or even a typewriter. Then, once he had my report, Adolph ordered my supervisor, Chester, and Chester’s helper (Chester always had a helper, and usually it was one of the guys from my crew at A11 which made our lives more difficult) to go to A11 and perform a thorough inspection. Apparently I couldn’t be trusted to determine whether cleaning was necessary. Chester came and did his inspection and presumably also had to file a report. Finally, the pocket track area was cleaned but it didn’t stay clean for long. There was frequently a 1/2” deep pool of urine around the derailer and some of the switch machines. We would occasionally refuse to work on them when it got really bad. Delayed maintenance could affect reliability, and a switch failure almost always causes delays. That’s why passengers should care about this issue.

The primary cause of the problem is that the operators often don’t have enough time at the end of their runs to go to the bathroom – particularly at stations like A11 where the pocket track is at the outbound end and the restrooms are upstairs at the end of a hallway on the far inbound end. The second issue is that even if there is enough time, some people are just flat lazy. They’d rather urinate in the pocket track area and on our equipment than walk to the bathroom.

Case in point – after years of effort we were finally able to convince management to install an incinerating toilet within about 150 feet of where the inbound end of a train in the pocket track would be. It can be seen from the platform end gate (outbound end, outbound track). Some operators still used the pocket track as their personal toilet. I got so disgusted that I used some fluorescent orange spray paint to write “Bathroom – 150 Feet >” on the tunnel wall. My “sign” was removed but the problem continued.

I even considered buying one or two of those fake surveillance cameras and installing them in the pocket but never did.

At one point, after we had complained to the superintendent of A99 about the unsanitary working conditions, my coworkers found some newspaper stuffed into one of the “block boxes” at A11. [A block box is a red steel box with a Plexiglass front that is used to store equipment to mechanically operate and lock track switches in the event of a failure – so that trains can continue to move safely until ATC is given permission to work on them]. The ATC techs assumed that someone had just stuffed the newspaper in there to prevent it from blowing around and had meant to return and remove it. It turned out that a disgruntled operator had defecated near our switches, wiped his/her ass with the newspaper, and then stuffed it into the block box for my coworkers to find – and unknowingly remove with their bare hands.

Yep, that’s the union brotherhood/sisterhood you hear so much about.

In the Fall of 1998 I was finally able to pick Glenmont Yard (B98) and I didn’t have to go back to A11 until the last few years before I retired when I was able to pick back at A99 and A11 had been added to the A99 territory. When I was working there recently the problem seemed to have subsided, even though the incinerating toilet had long been inoperative since it was never maintained properly.

For the sake of my coworkers, I hope all of this recent media attention will result in serious action being taken. I would suggest:

  1. Scheduling a sufficient amount of time for bathroom breaks at reasonable intervals throughout each operator’s shift or “run”.
  2. If there isn’t one already, create a rule prohibiting urinating and/or defecating anywhere on Metro property.
  3. Establishing progressive discipline for violating that rule – up through and including dismissal for repeat offenders.

I realize that most passengers may not see this as a serious issue. After all, it is human nature for people to only concern themselves with things that might affect themselves and/or their close friends and family. In this case, operators using pocket tracks as their personal restroom may very well affect passengers if the human waste prevents ATC techs from working on equipment in a timely manner.

This entry was posted in Management Follies, Safety Incidents, The Metro Hall of Shame, Work Life and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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