2 years after Red Line crash: Metro making progress, work remains

Two years after a crash on Metro’s Red Line killed nine people, the transit authority is still working to replace aging rail cars, install new equipment and make other changes that a federal agency said are necessary to ensure passenger safety.

Metro has made progress, but senior executives, congressional leaders and oversight groups say the transit agency has a lot of work ahead.

“The good news is Metro did pay attention,” said Deborah A.P. Hersman, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. “They listened and they’re committed to taking action to address the deficiencies. They’ve done what we asked for, and they’re still making progress.”

Last June, the first anniversary of the accident, Metro was struggling with a host of problems.

The agency had a huge budget shortfall. The NTSB’s final report on the crash between the Fort Totten and Takoma stations still loomed. Riders faced a complex fare increase, and the transit system was in the middle of a search for a permanent general manager. Plus, Metro was criticized when it was late inviting the victims’ families to a memorial to mark the deadliest accident in the transit system’s 35-year history.

The past year has brought a multitude of changes. In January, the agency hired Richard Sarles as its permanent general manager. Ten of 14 seats on its board have new members. (Two positions remain vacant.) The transit agency has beefed up its safety department, and it has a new public relations message for its riders: Metro is moving forward.

“The system is absolutely safer than it was a year ago,” said Sarles, who was brought in on an interim basis in spring 2010. “We’ve adopted an attitude of we’re going to change the safety culture to one that’s going to prevent accidents.”

Since the June 22, 2009, accident, Metro has installed new safety equipment and done more training to help prevent accidents. It has resolved more than 100 “corrective action items” from the NTSB, the Federal Transit Administration and other watchdog groups. It hopes to resolve 10 others soon.

Metro has also worked to solve some of the technical problems the NTSB identified as the cause of the Red Line crash. It is improving its train detection systems, replacing more than 1,500 track circuit modules and operating its trains in manual instead of automatic mode as a safety precaution.

At a recent roundtable discussion with the national capital region’s congressional delegation, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) — who was one of Metro’s harshest critics — said the transit agency has started to show “substantial improvement.” Mikulski said Metro had a “culture of cover-up of the problems and denial of the problems, and this is changing.”

Sarles said Metro is spending $1 billion to make repairs and improve its safety operations. The work includes:

• Installing rollback protection on rail cars.

• Replacing 148 switches, which guide trains from one track to another. (Metro plans to replace 30 more by summer 2012.)

• Spending $689 million to replace its oldest rail cars, the 1000 series, which make up about 25 percent of the fleet and which the NTSB has criticized as offering little protection in a crash.

• Getting safety officers out of their offices and into the field.

Metro still has troubles, though. It faces a $66 million budget shortfall, questions remain about its security after a bomb scare Monday, and federal efforts to set safety standards and oversight for transit systems nationwide have stalled.

Metro also has to address about 200 procedural and administrative safety “action items” identified by the Tri-State Oversight Committee, Metro’s internal audits and the FTA. But TOC Chair Matt Bassett said, “We can sleep at night knowing that the process they have in place to implement these plans is sound.”

Challenge of battling distrust

More work needs to be done on changing attitudes, Bassett said. In its final report on the causes of the crash, the NTSB criticized Metro’s former senior management for a “lack of a safety culture” and its board of directors for “ineffective safety oversight.”

“You’re not talking about just changing a piece of equipment,” said Bassett, whose group monitors safety at Metro. “You’re trying to change mind-sets. That’s more difficult.”

Battling the distrust that had grown between management and employees remains a challenge. Many employees in the field have said they fear retaliation for reporting safety concerns.

“The culture of reporting on each other and holding each other accountable has not changed,” said Jackie Jeter, president of Amalgamated Transit Union’s Local 689, which represents most Metro employees and has more than 10,000 members.

“It’s about trust between management and the employees, and trust between co-workers,” she said. “There’s been a culture of nothing but discipline, and we have to change that so people are not fearful to speak up and correct each other when they know a process or procedure is not being followed.

“All of us have had a slap in the face, and we’re all being judged on how well the system does or does not do.”

‘How many lives are at stake’

But Metro’s changes aren’t enough for some families of the Red Line crash victims.

Carolyn Jenkins of Upper Marlboro, whose daughter Veronica DuBose was killed in the crash as she was on her way to nursing school in the District, said she hasn’t ridden Metro since the accident.

“My daughter got on that train and put her life — and trust — in Metro’s hands,” said Jenkins, who is raising DuBose’s 3-year-old daughter. (DuBose’s 10-year-old son lives with his father in Culpeper, Va.)

“She never made it to school,” Jenkins said. “They killed her.” Jenkins is one of the many family members who have an ongoing lawsuit against Metro. The case is expected to go to trial in February.

Clare Wherley, 66, of Berkeley Heights, N.J., lost her brother, retired Maj. Gen. David Wherley, and his wife, Ann, in the crash. She said she is concerned that Metro has not moved fast enough to make its rail system safer.

“We don’t want to see other families suffer the way we have,” she said, noting that she had hoped that federal laws would be passed to standardize safety measures in rail systems nationwide.

“I don’t think Metro has done enough,” she said. “ ‘We’re making progress’ sounds a bit like PR. . . . How many lives are at stake while they’re replacing switches? In the meantime, we cross our fingers and hope nothing happens.”

Even those closest to Metro recognize there is work to do.

Mort Downey, chairman of the Metro board’s safety and security committee, said that he is concerned about recent incidents of overworked Metro employees and that they may be less focused on safety as the agency pushes an aggressive $5 billion capital plan to upgrade the system. Metro has said it is recruiting more inspectors and supervisors but notes that it will take time.

“Metro is a safer place because everyone from the top to the bottom is paying attention to safety,” Downey said. “Have we done everything we can do? No, but we’ve made a really good start from what was a very deep hole.”

Union officials plan to hold a town meeting to begin a dialogue with riders at 6 p.m. Monday at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, 901 G St. NW. Metro officials will place a wreath at the Fort Totten Station during a memorial ceremony at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

Dana Hedgpeth is the Washington Post’s lead reporter in covering the Metro rail and bus systems in the D.C. region and the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA) that runs them.
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