Metro has barred safety monitors from tracks, records show

By Joe Stephens and Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 9, 2009; A01

Since the spring, Metro officials have barred independent monitors from walking along subway tracks to observe safety procedures while trains are in normal service, even if escorted by Metro employees, newly obtained records show.

The monitors, from the Tri-State Oversight Committee, wanted to determine whether Metro was following rules put in place in recent years after a number of workers had been fatally injured on the job.

Instead, they have spent the past six months pressing Metro in writing and in person for access -- a period in which two Metro employees were struck and fatally injured on the tracks.

The monitors became so frustrated that at one point, internal e-mails show, they discussed formally notifying federal officials and invoking their toughest sanction: declaring Metro to be officially out of compliance with safety requirements. Such a move could cause Metro to lose part of its federal funding.

In July, the oversight committee made a plea in writing, telling Metro that without access to live tracks, it couldn't ensure workers' safety.

On Aug. 9, a track vehicle on the Orange Line struck and killed Metro worker Michael Nash.

A month later, committee members met with Metro officials, telling them that if they were unable to get on the tracks they would "elevate this issue," notes of the meeting show.

At 10:40 the next morning, a train near Reagan National Airport struck and fatally injured Metro technician John Moore.

Now, more than six months after the dispute began, safety monitors said they remain barred from entering the right of way along active train tracks.

Metro officials told the monitors that they were looking out for their safety. On Friday, Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said that there had been a "misimpression" and that committee members could approach the tracks if accompanied by safety escorts.

The dispute encapsulates what many safety experts and federal officials have described as a fundamental flaw with Metro and other subway systems: a lack of effective and enforceable oversight that leaves transit systems in charge of policing their own safety.

Unlike with other forms of transportation, the federal government cedes primary oversight of subways to a patchwork of state-level monitoring boards.

For Metro, the monitoring body is the Tri-State Oversight Committee, which has no employees, office or phone number. It also has no direct regulatory authority over Metro. Committee members work for local and state transportation departments, and much of their work is contracted out.

In its dispute with Metro, committee Chairman Eric Madison said that he thought the agency had inappropriately denied access to monitors and that he remained concerned about the "adequacy and effectiveness" of its safety program. Madison said in an e-mail Friday that committee members were working with Metro "to resolve this issue and hope to reach a solution soon."

Inspectors for the committee are looking to confirm a number of practices, including that all personnel on the tracks wear safety equipment, that they communicate properly with train operators and dispatchers, and that the operators slow their trains and sound their horns when they spot work crews.

Farbstein said Friday that committee members "can have access to the right of way with the trains in service or out of service as long as they have a safety escort."

In fact, Farbstein said, safety monitors were always allowed to walk live tracks with an escort. Told that her statement appeared to be contradicted by documents and official statements from the committee, Farbstein said: "I'm going to stick to what I said. I'm very comfortable with that."

Metro officials said that after this past summer's fatal accidents, they ordered a review of safety policies, mandatory refresher safety training for employees who work in the field and additional safety checks during track maintenance work.

Rail safety specialists across the country said that firsthand inspections are essential.

"I'm stunned, frankly," said Kitty Higgins, who served on the National Transportation Safety Board until August. "It raises doubts about what their real agenda is. The whole idea of inspections, if they are to have any credibility, is that they have to be random, they have to be unannounced and they have to be done during real-world working conditions."

Families of Metro workers killed on the tracks in past years reacted with disbelief.

"That just blows me away," said Betty Waldron, whose husband Michael's death in October 2005 helped prompt new safety rules to protect track workers.

"What are they trying to hide?" she asked. "They don't want to be accountable to the public. They think they are their own little private entity, and they are covering their behinds, and they don't want the public to know the ins and outs of what they are doing."

Gloria Brooks choked up when told of the dispute. Her son, Matthew, and another worker, Arvell Cherry, were hit and fatally injured by a train in November 2006 while inspecting tracks near the Eisenhower Avenue station.

"It's difficult for me to hear this," Brooks said. "I feel that Metro looks at what happens to their employees as just collateral damage to running the business."

Requests for records

None of the controversy over safety monitoring has been made public before. Metro has not released any documents in response to a September request from The Washington Post under the authority's open records policy for documents related to the safety audit. The newspaper learned of the dispute by analyzing minutes from oversight committee meetings, which are closed to the public, and through records received from Maryland and Virginia under public information requests.

It is the latest safety issue at Metro uncovered by The Post since a June 22 crash on the Red Line killed nine people and injured 80.

In August, The Post reported that Metro's supposedly fail-safe crash avoidance system had failed in March on Capitol Hill, allowing two trains to come "dangerously close" to colliding. A few weeks later, the paper reported that the same system also failed in 2005, when three trains narrowly escaped what records said would have been "disastrous collisions" in a tunnel under the Potomac River. That system is at the heart of a federal investigation into the deadly Red Line crash.

In September, The Post reported that Metro's highly publicized decision to sandwich older subway cars between newer ones was made after the crash to give the public "a sense of security."

In each instance, Metro declined to immediately release records related to the incidents under its open records policy.

"After these fatal accidents, you would think they would be bending over backward to try and assist in any type of safety oversight," said Jim Hall, a safety consultant and former chairman of the NTSB. He called on federal and local officials to ensure that Metro operates as securely as possible.

"This operation has said one thing and done another in regard to safety for years. The fatalities speak for themselves," Hall said. "This has been a failure of responsibility on every level."

Audit reveals problems

After four subway workers were struck and killed by trains in 2005 and 2006, Metro imposed new rules to improve safety. Months later, in 2007, monitors for the oversight committee walked the tracks and reported an unusually high number of violations.

The committee produced a stinging report that pointed to systemic problems with track safety.

The audit concluded that Metro consistently violated its own safety rules. Among other problems, operators failed to slow and sound their horns when approaching track workers, and dispatchers did not warn train operators to watch out for workers at particular points along the rails.

Metro employees did not report the violations, the audit said. A subsequent investigation by the NTSB reached many of the same conclusions about Metro's rules and procedures.

Metro adopted more safeguards after the committee's audit.

Last spring, when the committee decided to again walk the tracks and evaluate how well Metro had done at correcting those problems, Metro officials told the committee that their inspectors would be granted access only to areas where the electrified third rail had been turned off and train traffic had been diverted, records show.

Madison, the committee chairman, said in a May 15 letter to Metro that the agency's actions "directly impeded a primary goal of this project," which he identified as "directly verifying compliance with track worker protection programs." The letter said that inspectors were willing to be escorted by Metro officials. And, although committee personnel had already undergone safety training, the letter said they were willing to take additional training if necessary.

The committee, Madison wrote, "considers our ability to independently verify [Metro's] safety activities to be our most valuable asset in fulfilling our federally-mandated oversight responsibilities. Safe and appropriate access to the [tracks] and track workers, including areas under active rail movement, is a crucial component."

Two weeks later, Metro chief safety officer Alexa Dupigny-Samuels wrote back, saying that committee members remained barred from live tracks to avoid "unnecessary risks."

She said that Metro would "make every effort" to take the monitors "out to an isolated worksite where a clear observation of Metro's compliance" with safety rules "can be assessed" on a weekend.

Metro investigators have not publicly identified the cause of this summer's fatal worker accidents.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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