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Unsafe, Unaware, Unscrutinized
Is Metro's lack of effective oversight contributing to its safety problems?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

THE TRAGIC DEATH this weekend of a veteran Metro repairman in a track accident -- the cause is still undetermined -- underscores the mounting concern about this region's transit system since a June 22 crash killed nine people and injured more than 80. So does an article Sunday by The Post's Joe Stephens and Lena H. Sun, who reported on a little-noticed failure in Metro's crash-avoidance system that occurred last March, more than three months before the June calamity.

In and of itself, the March incident might have been a unnerving symptom of a troubled and chronically underfunded transit network. Because of an apparent malfunction in the Automatic Train Protection system, which is supposed to ensure that Metro trains detect one another and keep their distance, a train overshot the Potomac Avenue station by about 75 feet and came nearly within a six-car train's length of another train ahead of it. A Metro operator, noticing the train overshooting the station platform, hit the emergency brake.

That was bad enough: Who knows whether the Metro operator would have noticed any problem with the crash-avoidance system if the train had not been pulling into a station? However, that episode is all the more disquieting because of what happened next.

-- In late April, the Tri-State Oversight Committee -- the obscure, toothless, staff-less and penniless body nominally charged with keeping an eye on Metro -- asked for a full accounting of what the committee chairman rightly called the "potentially catastrophic" mishap in March. But by early July, the panel had received no response from Metro.

-- Although Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. has repeatedly pledged that the transit agency would more openly disclose the details of safety incidents to the public, the March incident was not publicly divulged by Metro. Nor was Metro's spokesperson aware of the incident before she was contacted by Post reporters.

-- Metro officials initially said they were unaware of any precedent for what they called the "freak occurrence" that led to the fatal crash in June -- apparently, a faulty track circuit. But the March event, while it seems to have involved a malfunction in the train car itself rather than the track, does implicate the same Automatic Train Protection system.

In each instance, Metro gives the impression of an agency whose left hand is disconcertingly estranged from its right. But the broader questions posed by The Post's reporting in recent days involve what amounts to a basic lack of oversight of the transit system, which, given its growing financing and infrastructure problems, needs outside scrutiny now more than ever. The existing oversight committee, which has no phones or offices, is simply ineffectual in its current form. What Metro is left with is oversight after the fact -- that is, by federal investigators who show up after an accident to deliver a post-mortem. Talk about too little, too late.

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