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D.C. transit agency often slow to act on safety recommendations

By Joe Stephens and Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 26, 2009; A01

After a Metro train unexpectedly rolled backward, gained speed and rammed another train in Woodley Park, investigators identified dozens of safety deficiencies related to the 2004 crash.

Five years after that collision injured 20 people, records show that 11 safety recommendations have not been carried out. Among those pending: upgrading electronics on all Metro trains to prevent them from rolling back and adding door handles for emergency workers trying to enter a rail car quickly.

Those recommendations, known as corrective action plans, represent just a fraction of the improvements that have languished under a system operated by Metro managers and independent monitors from the Tri-State Oversight Committee. A Washington Post analysis of committee data shows that, as of Nov. 20, more than 100 safety corrections recommended after accidents, other incidents and audits were listed as not completed.

After The Post requested access to the data under open records laws, Metro officials said they became "aggressive" and, by last week, had completed 36 outstanding recommendations. The unusually fast reaction coincides with a sweeping management shake-up and a "declaration of war" on safety problems.

"There is no excuse," Metro's acting safety chief, Michael Taborn, said of the backlog. "Some heads were knocked."

The oversight committee's manual lays out a timetable under which most safety deficiencies should be identified and corrected within 60 days. But under federal law, the committee has no authority to force Metro to share records and no power to compel the transit agency to act.

"What you're finding, when you look behind the curtain, is that there's been a lot of neglect to safety priorities coming out of accidents," said Kitty Higgins, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board. "It really is disheartening."

As recently as July 7, the oversight committee and Metro set a goal of closing out five corrective actions a month, minutes from committee meetings show. Taborn said Metro will move faster in the future. "We're going to do our concerted best to close them out as quickly and sufficiently as we possibly can," he said.

Some fixes will take considerable time and money. Adding protection against rolling back to all rail cars is expected to cost about $3 million and take years. External emergency door handles will cost about $5 million, records show.

Metro's renewed commitment comes after an investigative series in The Post during the past six months revealed lapses in safety and oversight at the transit agency. In recent weeks, the Obama administration has announced a plan to take over safety regulation of subway systems nationwide, and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) has demanded broad changes at Metro.

The transit agency recently announced a major reorganization, under which the agency's second-highest executive and at least three other top managers are to leave or be reassigned.

Other data released to The Post this month shows that Metro has yet to complete investigations into more than 40 accidents and other safety-related incidents, including eight derailments, some dating to April 2006. When the investigations are complete, they will generate additional recommendations.

Corrective actions related to the 2004 Woodley Park crash are among the oldest and the most serious in the data analyzed by The Post. Federal investigators determined that had the trains been full, the collision would have killed about 80 people.

Taborn said that Metro has retrofitted some railcars to keep them from rolling back but that financial and logistical challenges have delayed work on about half the fleet. Metro plans to complete the retrofitting by 2016, he said.

A 2007 corrective action plan says rules protecting track workers appear to be consistently violated and unenforced. Since then, two Metro workers have been struck and fatally injured. Action on the recommendation was completed Dec. 9, after the deaths, when Metro changed its written policy. Even so, committee officials said they continue to investigate whether workers are safe on the tracks.

A 2006 safety deficiency, related to the death of a worker hit by a train near Dupont Circle, prompted a recommendation that Metro schedule employees so they can receive "eight consecutive hours of sleep prior to their next work assignment." The recommendation's status is listed as a "1," the highest urgency of three categories. Taborn said Metro has been discussing new scheduling rules with union officials.

Another 2006 deficiency, added after a series of derailments, spurred calls for reducing the risk of accidents by changing the angle where wheel rims make contact with the rails. That recommendation's priority also is a "1." Metro officials said they are eight months into a year-long test of the new angle, and if the test is successful, they will make changes fleetwide.

Two safety items remain open related to a 2005 incident in which Metro's automatic crash-avoidance system failed in a tunnel under the Potomac River. That lapse allowed three trains to come within 20 feet of colliding, forcing operators to override the system and brake manually.

Some of Metro's recent actions were strictly administrative; Metro satisfied many of the recommendations by providing safety monitors with documentation that improvements had been completed. In other cases, they combined two or more related recommendations.

Before Metro's recent change of heart, federal officials had castigated the agency and the oversight committee repeatedly. A 2005 audit by the Federal Transit Administration identified nine broad deficiencies in the oversight committee's programs and concluded that its haphazard efforts fell short of federal standards. Auditors returned two years later and discovered many of the same "serious" problems.

"FTA does not understand why [Metro and the oversight committee] have been unable to make more progress in addressing this critical issue," the auditors wrote, adding that addressing the deficiencies "should be the highest priority."

The oversight committee's vice chairman, Matthew Bassett, said last week that the committee has added resources and made "a great deal of progress" in addressing the backlog.

In response to public concern, the FTA launched another audit this month. Results are expected early next year.

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