In recent months, a Blue Line train derailed in Rosslyn; a Metro mechanic was seriously injured when struck by a train in a maintenance yard; and the doors of a moving Red Line train opened without warning. A passenger trying to help a heart attack victim in April found that a station’s defibrillator didn’t work. Internal reports unearthed by the media this month show the agency ignored inspectors’ repeated warnings about inaccessible emergency exits. Rails have cracked with increasing frequency.
On Wednesday, for the third time since December, Metro reported that a part of the brake system had fallen off a rail car.
Overall, Metro watchdog groups and public officials say, Metro is safer than it was on June 22, 2009, when a faulty automated-signal system failed to detect a Red Line train and sent another train crashing into it near Fort Totten. Nine people died, and dozens of others were injured. However, safety monitors say there’s room for improvement.
Deborah A.P. Hersman, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said Metro has been more receptive to the board’s recommendations.
“Before the Fort Totten accident, the NTSB had been very frustrated because we’d investigate accidents on Metro and we wouldn’t see a response to our recommendations or attention to safety,” Hersman said. “But since the Fort Totten accident, we’ve seen Metro really embrace our recommendations. . . . I think we’ve seen a real change in attitude with respect to safety.”
Matthew Bassett, outgoing chairman of the Tri-State Oversight Committee, an independent watchdog agency, said Metro has made “fairly strong progress” on safety but has more to do.
Of particular concern, some transit experts say, is that the problems have occurred even though Metro has received hundreds of millions of dollars in additional government funds for safety improvements and rehabilitation projects. Metrorail, the nation’s second-busiest subway system, will also face additional pressures when the first, 11.5-mile section of the Silver Line opens to Tysons Corner late next year.
“I do think these smaller events are a sign that they need to pay attention and stay on top of these things,” Hersman said.
Watchdog groups and public officials say the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which operates Metro, deserves credit for its faster response to safety problems in recent years. And improvements are being made as Metro, like other large U.S. rail systems, struggles with aging equipment and decaying infrastructure, transit experts say.
Metro has more than doubled its safety office staff, from 28 to 60 people, and it has embarked on an ambitious training program for workers and reduced injury rates for passengers and workers, agency officials say. Customers say they’ve noticed some improvements, from replaced broken station tiles to fewer escalator breakdowns.