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Board's Backing of Catoe Unwavering in Time of Turmoil

Other workers have criticized rail managers for not acting on two-year-old NTSB recommendations to install warning equipment designed to prevent track worker accidents. Catoe said the agency has not made a decision.

Some employees also said Catoe has weakened oversight because he shifted safety officers and quality-control staff from a separate safety department into the bus and rail departments they monitor. The move, part of an agency overhaul two years ago, gave those officers less independence, they said, and compromised safety. Catoe has defended the move, arguing that the approach broadens the reach of safety within the agency.

Since the June crash, rider unhappiness has flooded online blogs, chats and comments. Graham said he has begun receiving e-mails from riders calling for Catoe's resignation.

"The guy at the top needs to take responsibility," said Joe Baumgartner, 44, a District software engineer who rides the Red Line.

Some longtime riders said they take Metro less often because service has become less reliable.

"If I have to get in early, I drive because Metro is not necessarily going to get me there on time," said Miriam Pemberton, 57, who rides the Red Line from Silver Spring to Farragut North for her research job. "To get me back, they have to be more consistent."

Catoe is well aware of the complaints. Riders approach him on the train -- he uses it to commute from his Capitol Hill home to Metro headquarters near Verizon Center-- and at the grocery store. Even his dental hygienist has asked him about Metro.

The pressure is evident in Catoe's demeanor and tone. In public appearances, he has often seemed frustrated and tired. At board meetings before the crash, he would mingle and make small talk with reporters; he is more guarded now. At the bus garage groundbreaking, he became emotional while addressing the supportive crowd. He acknowledged Metro's "troubled times" and said, his voice rising, "I want to tell you that we're building the bridge over troubled waters.''

Catoe has a long record of navigating difficulties. He grew up in public housing complexes in the District and, after graduating from Spingarn High, worked as a parking attendant and mail sorter and in other low-level jobs, receiving a college degree after nine years.

His father drove a cab for 35 years and had nine children. His mother was a longtime cook in the executive dining room of the late Katharine Graham, former chairman of the board of The Washington Post Co.

His public transportation career began in 1979 by happenstance. While on vacation on Catalina Island in California, he broke a leg falling off a motorcycle. He wound up with a job in personnel at the Orange County Transit District and worked his way up to operations director after 17 years. He later headed transit services for Santa Monica, before moving to Los Angeles.

In his first few weeks on the job in Washington, three pedestrians died in Metrobus accidents, and a train derailment injured 20 people. Catoe vowed then to make Metro the safest transit agency in the country, the best ride in the nation.

Instead, Metro is suffering an unprecedented string of misfortunes.

Last week, on Sept. 14, a Metro communication technician died four days after he was struck by a train, the fourth person to be fatally injured while doing work for Metro since June.

The transit agency has also been hurt by disclosures about workers caught sending text messages and using mobile phones on the job. A train operator tested positive for drugs after delivering a train with too many rail cars to a station. In August, Metro fired two bus drivers: one for allegedly kidnapping a passenger, the other for driving with a suspended license at the time of an off-duty accident. On Sept. 3, a Metrobus driver with a history of accidents struck and critically injured a jogger.

"A lot of times, I feel like we're playing 'Whack-a-Mole,' " said Metro board member McKay. "Every time something gets settled, something else pops up.'"

Staff writer James Hohmann contributed to this report.

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