Senators want hearings, probe on Metro safety concerns

By Lena H. Sun and Joe Stephens
Tuesday, November 10, 2009

U.S. senators on Monday called for an investigation into potential safety lapses at Metro and announced that a hearing will be held after a report in The Washington Post revealed that subway officials had barred independent monitors from live tracks.

Also, Metro board Chairman Jim Graham said Monday that the transit agency's safety chief was "out of order" when she denied access to the monitors, who sought to ensure that Metro was following worker safety rules after a number of employees had been killed on the rails.

"The safety monitors have got to be given the chance to monitor," Graham said. "I'm totally puzzled as to why we would prevent them from having access, because that's their job. I'm going to make sure that happens. I'm speaking to the general manager. We're going to fix this."

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) called on U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to investigate Metro's treatment of the Tri-State Oversight Committee, the regional body that oversees safety at Metro.

In recent months, a Post investigation has documented repeated instances in which the committee was unsuccessful in obtaining information from Metro about near-collisions and other safety breakdowns.

"Time after time after time, we hear about safety practices at Metro that give us pause," Mikulski, who is a member of a subcommittee that oversees mass transit funding, said in a statement. "Metro has to do its utmost to protect the safety of its riders and employees. Anything less is unacceptable," she said.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who chairs a transportation subcommittee, said: "This is a case study on how the current patchwork of state safety organizations are failing our nation's commuters. The Banking Committee is pursuing stronger federal transit safety oversight, and I will be chairing a hearing on this very topic in the coming weeks. There needs to be a change before more people are killed in another preventable rail disaster."

Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said Monday that monitors could approach the live tracks as long as they have passed a safety class and are accompanied by safety escorts. She said that has always been Metro's position, and she has attributed the dispute to a "misimpression."

Eric Madison, chairman of the oversight committee, said Monday that Metro officials had not notified him that they had lifted their ban on access to live tracks. He said he welcomed outside interest in the issue.

"Hopefully, things will get resolved and we can get back to doing what we need to do," Madison said. "We do support any efforts that continue to increase security and safety."

The Post investigation found that since the spring, the monitors have been seeking access to active train tracks to see whether Metro is following rules put in place after four workers were fatally struck by trains in 2005 and 2006.

For the past six months, the monitors have been pressing Metro in writing and in person for access, a period in which two more Metro employees were struck and fatally wounded on the tracks.

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