What does Metro have to hide on its safety standards?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

ONCE AGAIN, Metro is circling the rail wagons in response to revelations of its seemingly cavalier disregard of safety standards and its habit of ducking and dodging what should be routine oversight. And once again, the transit agency is suggesting by its actions that it has something to hide.

Records obtained by The Post's Joe Stephens and Lena H. Sun show that transit officials have stiff-armed repeated and perfectly reasonable requests by independent monitors to verify that its safety procedures are up to snuff. These requests were made both before and after two Metro workers were struck and killed on the rails in recent months; despite those deaths, or because of them, Metro continued to refuse permission for the safety checks.

There's a history here, and it's damning for Metro. It begins after the deaths of four subway workers who were struck and fatally injured by trains in 2005 and 2006. The following year, 2007, monitors from the Tri-State Oversight Committee, the toothless entity that tries to monitor Metro's safety standards, walked the tracks and observed a shocking number of violations of Metro's safety rules. Train operators failed to warn track workers by sounding their horns. Dispatchers didn't bother to warn train operators that track workers were out on the rails. The monitors laid out these and other violations in a hard-hitting report -- which Metro seems not to have appreciated. (A separate report at the time by federal transportation officials reached similar conclusions.)

Fast-forward to this spring, when the Tri-State Oversight Committee again pressed the transit agency to allow monitors walk the tracks to check compliance with safety practices, including some implemented by Metro after the committee's report. This time, Metro officials wrote back saying, in effect: Forget it. They said monitors would be barred for their own safety from walking live tracks, even with safety escorts provided by Metro, and suggested that the monitors might instead walk inactive tracks (with no trains) on the weekends. That would be an utterly useless exercise.

Metro's first responsibility is to the safety of its passengers and employees -- a responsibility that it has failed to live up to in repeated instances this year alone. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) and others in Congress want an investigation into safety lapses at Metro. On Tuesday, Metro's board belatedly said it will allow independent safety monitors on live tracks. Nevertheless, we suggest that the Senate probe be broadened to cover the agency's impulse to flinch from openness, even or especially on issues related to safety.

To quote Betty Waldron, whose husband, Michael, a Metro employee, was killed on the rails four years ago: "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."

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