Putting Metro on Track

Tuesday, June 23, 2009; 6:05 PM

Editor's Note: As the investigation of this week's crash gets underway and Washington's transportation system tries to restore rider confidence, Metro will likely face some of the same questions and uncertainties as it did after its last fatal accident, on Jan. 6, 1996. This editorial, which first appeared in The Post on Nov. 6 of that year, highlighted concerns about dated technology and poor management. Yet the Post editorial board saw promise in Metro's new leadership. We republish the piece as part of our RePosted feature, where we dig through The Post archives to find pieces that shed light on current events.

AFTER YEARS of riding high as one of the country's most acclaimed rapid-rail systems, Metro has had a singularly tough time of it during the past 14 months or so. Safety problems -- including one on Jan. 6 that killed a train operator -- and bad management in the top ranks of the operations team have combined to rattle public confidence. Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a report on that fatal accident that was bluntly critical not only of Metro's deputy manager for operations at the time but also of some of its safety practices and equipment. The encouraging news is that Metro is now under new management that is already moving to carry out all 20 recommendations issued by the Transportation Board. General Manager Richard A. White has wasted no time getting on the case -- changing policies, establishing a special safety team that reports directly to him and looking to improve customer relations.

The Safety Board concluded in its report that the fatal crash on Jan. 6 occurred because Metro relied on a flawed computer system to run its trains and because workers there were reluctant to challenge orders -- even to prevent an accident. Investigators said the tragedy exposed a 20-year-old defect in the computer-controlled system that operates the trains -- a flaw that could have caused a far more serious accident. The report noted that train brakes had not been set with enough pressure to ensure consistent stopping of computer-controlled trains on wet tracks.

On the evening of the crash, Metro controllers were following orders from then-Deputy General Manager Fady P. Bassily, who two months before had reversed a manual-operation policy and told operators to run trains automatically even in bad weather. That order change was bad enough, but Mr. Bassily made it without telling his superiors.

Quite aside from the terrible reign of Mr. Bassily, the safety board found a general need to open up and energize Metro's top ranks. "People in this system had grown complacent over the years because of the lack of accidents," says board Chairman Jim Hall. "But the absence of an accident does not mean a safe system."

Mr. White appears to be making changes on many fronts, looking for ways to ease financial strains, for the best mix of fares and subsidies from the participating governments, rescuing what's left of the Metrobus network and determining where additional rail service might work. But his initial attention to safety considerations is the right emphasis. Riders may realize that Metro remains one of the best systems in the country, but they need constant reassurance that Metro is a safe as well as efficient way to go.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company