Mr. Catoe's future

Sunday, December 13, 2009

IN A HEARING last week, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), who has no gift for understatement, unleashed a withering attack on Metro's management. She accused the embattled transit system of "a pattern of laxity, passivity and lip service" on safety issues and concluded with what amounted to a clarion call to dump John B. Catoe Jr., Metro's general manager. "I am not happy about Metro management," proclaimed the veteran senator, who did not quite have the gumption to mention Mr. Catoe by name. "I have no confidence in Metro."

A day later, Mr. Catoe shuffled his top management, removing both his deputy and the transit system's safety chief; the latter move in particular seemed overdue.

Senatorial grandstanding aside, it's fair to raise questions about management after a year that has delivered unending nightmares for Metro and its passengers. Barely a fortnight has passed without some new accident, damning revelation or chilling reminder of the system's aging infrastructure, financial anemia and unreliability. Penetrating reporting by The Post's Lena H. Sun and Joe Stephens has raised troubling questions about Metro's lack of effective oversight, its spotty record in leveling with the public and, in recent weeks, its seeming reluctance to submit to track inspections by independent safety monitors.

All that has provided a grim context for the human tragedies that have occurred on the rail system in 2009 -- the deaths of eight passengers and a train operator in a crash in June and three more workers in mishaps on the job. Metro's management, which runs the second-busiest rail transit system in the nation, is and should be under intensified scrutiny. That ought to include questions about whether Mr. Catoe and his team -- particularly the officials dealing directly with safety -- have been sufficiently vigilant and proactive.

Nonetheless, we have seen little evidence to date to indicate that Mr. Catoe has contributed to the system's failures either by negligence, poor judgment or ineptitude. To the contrary, Mr. Catoe, whose three-year contract was renewed by the Metro board in September, is widely respected in this region and nationally as an even-keeled, detail-oriented and deeply experienced transit professional. It would be wrong if the drive-by testimony of a single U.S. senator triggered a groundswell for his removal.

Although investigations are still underway, it appears possible that some of the most serious accidents of the past year may have involved aging equipment or technology We wonder whether different management could have prevented those incidents or magically found the hundreds of millions of dollars to replace more than 200 antiquated train cars on a faster timetable.

If Mr. Catoe is to be casually blamed for Metro's troubles, we'd like to see evidence for it, as well as some indication that his departure -- which would likely leave the system at least temporarily headless -- would stand a good chance of making things any better.

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