Metro board backs safety monitors

Metro safety chief Alexa Dupigny-Samuels has been criticized for denying monitors access to tracks.
Metro safety chief Alexa Dupigny-Samuels has been criticized for denying monitors access to tracks. (Jahi Chikwendiu/the Washington Post)
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By Lena H. Sun and Joe Stephens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 20, 2009

The Metro board of directors ordered all agency employees Thursday to cooperate fully with the transit system's safety oversight body and executives to notify the board before denying a request from the group after recent revelations about Metrorail safety lapses.

In unanimously adopting the resolution, the board recognized that "independent monitoring is vital for the safety of the system and to the maintenance of public confidence."

The board called on the localities that fund Metro to provide more resources for the Tri-State Oversight Committee and urged the federal government to institute "robust" safety regulation and oversight of transit. U.S. transportation officials said last week that they plan to ask Congress to grant them direct regulatory authority over safety for subway and light rail systems across the country.

Board members were responding to a Washington Post report last week that said Metro executives had barred independent monitors from walking along live tracks to observe safety procedures since spring. Shortly after the monitors were barred, two Metro workers were fatally injured in separate incidents on the tracks.

The board ordered an internal investigation into the dispute.

Board members complained Thursday that Metro executives did not tell them when they enacted the ban and then misled them about how it started after it became public.

"It's clear to me this system isn't working," said Virginia board member Chris Zimmerman. "If the staff is going to say no to the [safety monitors], it has to tell the board."

Under questioning, Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. said he did not learn of the ban until Nov. 6, six months after it was imposed and after reporters had contacted Metro seeking comment.

"Clearly, a very significant matter of worker safety . . . was not brought to the attention of the general manager for months," Zimmerman said.

Feeling misled

Zimmerman and board Chairman Jim Graham said that after news of the dispute became public, Metro officials led them to believe that the monitors were barred from the track right of way because they refused to be escorted by Metro safety personnel. In fact, the board members said, correspondence from the monitors to Metro safety chief Alexa Dupigny-Samuels shows that the monitors explicitly agreed to be accompanied by Metro employees.

"As recently as this week, I was given to understand the problem was that they did not want an escort. And clearly, that was not the case," Zimmerman said.

"I think there has been obfuscation in terms of subsequent [Metro] representations of what happened," said Graham, who represents the District on the board. He then read a letter in which Dupigny-Samuels denied the monitors access.

"I think that the plain meaning of this letter of May 29 is to say: 'Sorry, Charlie. You're not coming,' " Graham said.

Zimmerman, who wrote the resolutions, said Metro's policy has always been to cooperate with its safety monitors. But that policy has been "clearly called into question by recent events," he said after the meeting.

Board members also asked why the safety monitors did not complain directly to Metro board members months ago, especially after the deadly June 22 Red Line crash and two workers were fatally injured on the tracks.

"Why didn't you just pick up the phone and call me?" Graham asked Eric Madison, chairman of the Oversight Committee. "Why didn't you take an additional step and say, 'We're stymied here'? Why didn't you help us break up this roadblock?"

Madison replied that there was no formal procedure for elevating a dispute with Metro officials.

The who?

The Oversight Committee's profile has been so muted that Metro board members said they didn't know the 12-year-old body existed until articles about it appeared in The Post after the June accident.

"Many people have served here without hearing the name Tri-State Oversight Committee and certainly never interacted much with them," Zimmerman said.

The resolutions directed Catoe to keep the board regularly apprised of interactions with the safety monitors and to reassess internal safety oversight at Metro.

The board is also directing that letters be sent to the heads of transportation departments in Maryland, Virginia and the District -- whose employees serve on the safety oversight committee -- to seek more funding and professionally trained full-time staff. The committee has six members but no employees, office or phone number.

Since the ban became public, the agency has increased supervision of Dupigny-Samuels. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) has called on U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to investigate Metro's oversight by the committee. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of a transportation subcommittee, has said he will soon hold a hearing to look into the incident.

Metro officials also said Thursday that they are developing a signal system to alert train operators that workers are on the tracks. A signal light would be installed at the front of a rail station platform, where Metro trains stop. Track workers would turn it on before entering a track area, alerting train operators to reduce speed.

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