Metro officials report gains in safety, training since 2009 Red Line crash

Metro’s general manager and chief safety officer told the region’s congressional delegation Wednesday afternoon that the transit system has installed better safety equipment and done more training to help prevent accidents since the June 2009 Red Line crash.

But they cautioned that the transit network needs continued federal funding to upgrade its poorly maintained rail system or it risks a “slide backward,” Metro chief Richard Sarles said. Sarles said deferring maintenance could “ultimately jeopardize safety.”

Sarles and Chief Safety Officer James Dougherty testified at a roundtable discussion on Capitol Hill before leaders of the National Capital Region’s congressional delegation, telling them they have tried to institute safety as the agency’s “number one priority.”

It is the second time the roundtable, headed by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), has called on Metro’s senior leadership to provide a progress report on its moves to improve safety. The roundtable took place a week before the second anniversary of the June 22 accident at Fort Totten. Nine people were killed and dozens injured in the deadliest accident in Metro’s history, an event that Mikulski called “a terrible, terrible tragedy.”

After the crash, scathing reports criticized Metro and its board for safety issues, a lack of oversight and other problems.

“What bothered us the most was finding there was an absence of a culture of safety,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said Wednesday.

Sarles said the agency has “started to turn the corner.” He said that Metro has resolved more than 100 “corrective action items” from the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Transit Administration, and hopes to resolve 10 others soon.

Congressional leaders questioned Metro’s response to Monday’s bomb scare on a Red Line train, a rise in thefts of electronic devices and fights in the system, and efforts to repair escalators.

Sarles, who was appointed interim general manager last year and named to the permanent job in January, ticked off the improvements made during his tenure. Metro has established a better working relationship with the Tri-State Oversight Committee, which oversees safety at Metro, and Metro’s 15 safety officers have “gotten out of their offices and into the field,” he said.

Sarles said Metro has better internal systems to make employees more comfortable when reporting safety violations, has created a new manual on track-worker protection and has established a cross-departmental group to focus on worker safety.

The delegation questioned some recent incidents, including an uptick in rule violations in rail yards, with some workers running red signals. No serious injuries have been reported.

Sarles said that in response, Metro is revising “training protocols, increasing field evaluations, stepping up supervision in the yards and issuing new standard operating procedures” to increase communication. He described how more than a dozen track workers came to his office to protest the termination of an employee who failed to properly monitor the movement of track equipment. Sarles said he listened to them but didn’t change his mind, because “we take very seriously” the safety of employees.

Mikulski said the incident shows a changing culture.

“They might not have been happy with the outcome, but there was a channel of communication,” she said. “There’s a will. Now we need to find a wallet, and we need to stay the course.”

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