Mikulski urges federal probe on Metro safety, blocked inspectors
Expect hearing, N.J. senator says Graham to press Catoe for monitors' track access

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.

Metro safety officer Alexa Dupigny-Samuels told the monitors in a letter that she was denying them access to live tracks for their own safety.

Monitors could go to areas where the electrified third rail had been turned off and train traffic had been diverted, Metro officials said. But safety experts say firsthand inspections of normal operations are essential.

In July, the oversight committee made a plea in writing, telling Metro that without access to live tracks, it couldn't ensure workers' safety. Shortly after, a track vehicle on the Orange Line struck and killed Metro worker Michael Nash.

On Sept. 9, committee members met with Metro officials, telling them that if they were unable to get onto the tracks they would "elevate this issue," according to notes of the meeting. The next morning, a train near Reagan National Airport struck and fatally injured Metro technician John T. Moore.

Committee officials repeatedly told Metro that inspectors were willing to be escorted by agency officials and undergo additional training if necessary.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said that she spoke to Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. on Monday and concluded that safety monitors should have access to active tracks to confirm that safety rules are being followed.

"If there is no power on [the rails], they are not seeing anything," Norton said of the monitors. "People obviously should be looking at what happens when the trains are under power."

Norton said that the oversight committee should be given increased funding and authority to accomplish its mission. Ultimately, however, "nothing short of federal regulation is going to do the job" of ensuring that the train system is safe, she said.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company