[Robret McCartney]

Robert McCartney: Catoe Must Strive for More Candor

By Robert Mccartney
Friday, July 24, 2009

Reeling from the second unwelcome report in three days about temperamental safety circuits on Metro lines, General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. pledged at Metro headquarters Thursday to be "transparent" and "open to our customers" about addressing any problems after last month's Red Line crash.

The promise was overdue. Half a block away from Catoe's news conference, subway riders at the Judiciary Square Station made it clear that Metro's message hasn't been getting through.

"I'm not getting enough information," said Dwayne Wilson, 27, a cafeteria company employee who lives in Northwest. He rides Metro regularly but doesn't feel safe doing so, he said.

Mike Pinette, 53, a retired Navy employee who lives in the Fredericksburg area, said he was concerned that Metro might have failed to fix problems that it was aware of. "Things like this [the crash] shouldn't happen if they know the things could happen," Pinette said.

A 54-year-old woman who lives near Washington National Cathedral, who spoke on condition that her name not be used because of her job with the federal government, said she was disturbed by this week's report that Metro had circuit problems at locations other than Fort Totten, near where nine people died in the June 22 collision.

"The way we comfort ourselves about the risk of accidents is by believing they're rare and random. If signal problems are a regular occurrence, that takes away the sole comfort that we had," she said.

Although some riders said they felt safe, their comments overall highlight the damage done by Metro's awkward, tardy work in providing complete information to the public after the deadliest accident in its history.

Rather than grab the initiative in telling riders about what it's doing to spot and fix safety issues, Metro has scrambled at times to respond to information already raised by the media or federal safety investigators.

Catoe knows he's got a problem, and he said in an interview after the news conference that Metro would do better. But he also said -- correctly -- that some of the problems are out of his hands.

In particular, the National Transportation Safety Board typically doesn't give Metro much advance notice before publicizing important information about its investigation into the crash. Catoe said he was as surprised as anybody when the NTSB announced Thursday that a track circuit at the site of the crash had been malfunctioning since December 2007, when a key piece of equipment was replaced.

"There was no pre-warning, no heads-up. I found out the same moment everyone else found out," Catoe said. "I did not have a chance to be proactive and communicate it."

There has been tension between NTSB and Metro almost from the start, partly because the NTSB does not want Metro putting out any information specifically related to the crash.

Catoe also said information has been more difficult to manage in this accident because it's taking so long to figure out what happened. By contrast, after recent transit accidents in Los Angeles and Boston, it became clear fairly quickly that the train operator had been distracted, either by texting or using a cellphone.

"In most accidents, there has been a specific something that happened. It was a result of human error, or something that somebody didn't do," Catoe said. "This particular accident, the NTSB still does not know exactly what all the causes were."

Catoe acknowledged, though, that he erred in not immediately making public the discovery of anomalies in circuits other than at the crash site near Fort Totten. The anomalies are brief and infrequent outages, Metro officials have said, rather than the more serious failures found at the crash site, but they are still potentially worrisome to riders. Catoe said he learned of them early last week, but they weren't made public until my Post colleagues, Lena H. Sun and Lyndsey Layton, broke the story Tuesday on the Web.

"In hindsight, I see that I should have said that before," Catoe said.

What was important, Catoe said, was that work is going forward to adjust or replace any of the fluttering circuits. Given heightened public interest, though, he conceded that Metro should have explained that the work wasn't routine. "I should have communicated clearly that we're doing this because of the accident," he said.

Although nobody likes to talk about it publicly, some of Catoe's communication problems are within his own organization. Two sources familiar with Metro suggested that Catoe wasn't getting complete information promptly in some cases because of bureaucratic inertia and fear of being blamed for mistakes.

Spokeswoman Candace Smith hinted at the problem. Asked why Metro hadn't divulged the existence of the circuit anomalies earlier, she said, "We personally didn't know about it." She added that the people who discovered the problems were overworked and more interested in solving the problem than notifying the public. "They're not so much thinking about that aspect," she said.


Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) revealed Tuesday that he had traveled outside the state for work as chairman of the Democratic National Committee for half of the days in June. Less than two weeks earlier, however, he'd said he'd been spending a day and a half of each workweek on DNC business. Kaine's office says June was an aberration. We could better believe that if the office had been more forthcoming with information about his travels from the start.

I talk about local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM).

E-mail me at robertmccartney@washpost.com.

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