Target of unrelenting criticism, top Metro executive quits

By Lena H. Sun, Joe Stephens and Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 15, 2010; A01

Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. announced his resignation Thursday, following the deadliest year in the transit agency's history. His departure leaves Metro searching for a new leader as it confronts huge budget shortfalls and its biggest safety crisis in more than three decades.

Catoe, who has run Metro for three years, said he wanted to give the troubled agency a chance for a new start. His last day will be April 2.

"The events of the past six months and related incessant publicity have created an unhealthy distraction for the organization," he said, reading from a letter he wrote to the agency's board of directors. "I have decided that it is time for me to . . . provide this organization an opportunity to move beyond the current distractions."

Catoe's announcement follows months of revelations about lapses in safety and oversight at the nation's second-busiest subway system.

Records revealed that Metro's crash-avoidance system had failed more than once before June's Red Line crash, which killed nine people and injured dozens.

Documents also showed that Metro had barred safety inspectors from live tracks and allowed safety deficiencies to fester for years. Those reports shook public confidence, prompted federal criticism and led to an Obama administration proposal to overhaul transit safety regulation nationwide. As a result, Metro announced last month that four top managers would be leaving or be reassigned, including Catoe's top deputy and safety officer.

Jackie Jeter, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents most Metro workers, said the "total turnover of top Metro management" was troubling. "Who is left to decide and oversee those decisions that must be made to help ensure a safe, productive mass-transit system?"

In an interview Jan. 8, Catoe acknowledged that Metro's once-stellar reputation was suffering.

Despite Metro's past success in mobilizing for special events, such as last year's presidential inauguration, the agency is "now discussed at certain meetings as 'Here's what happened at [Metro] and what not to do,' " Catoe said. He said that Metro had become a "poster boy for safety issues that other agencies should avoid."

Although many riders had called for his resignation, Catoe said as recently as Jan. 8 that he would stay.

"I believe I offer a leadership that can fix this," he said, referring to the multiple safety lapses. "I know we will do it going forward."

Metro board Chairman Jim Graham, of the District, said: "I think he decided very, very recently that enough was enough and he's gone. It's been a very rough year."

Graham and some other members tried to persuade Catoe to remain longer as general manager. He refused.

Catoe decided to retire and said the decision was entirely his own. He will not receive any severance pay.

High hopes

The son of a D.C. cabdriver, Catoe came to Metro after establishing his transportation credentials on the West Coast. Running Metro, "America's Subway," was the apex of his 30-year career.

His announcement concludes a Metro tenure that began with high hopes that he would restore stability. When he took over in January 2007, he was the fourth general manager in two years. At the time, Metro had been battered by a series of train and bus fatalities. Catoe vowed to make safety his top priority and change the culture at Metro.

Last year, the American Public Transportation Association named Catoe its manager of the year, and the Metro board rewarded him in the fall with a new three-year contract.

But under his leadership, Catoe restructured the safety department so it had less autonomy. The chief safety officer job has been a revolving door, and Metro is looking to hire its fifth safety chief in three years.

Last year also brought unprecedented troubles to the transit system. Eleven passengers and employees died, and the number of track suicides rose.

Metro's financial problems worsened. Ridership fell, and Metro officials blamed the drop on the recession.

Last month, a Metro subway train nearly hit a team of independent safety inspectors checking safety conditions for Metro track workers. The Dec. 10 incident happened just days after Metro had lifted a six-month ban on monitors accessing live subway tracks.

After each incident, Catoe vowed to get tough on safety and hold workers accountable. In December, he ordered the sweeping reorganization.

Safety concerns rise

After June's crash, Catoe publicly described the failure of Metro's automatic crash-avoidance system as "a freak occurrence." But in the following weeks and months, The Washington Post reported systemwide problems in train control technology and safety oversight.

Internal records showed that the supposedly fail-safe crash-avoidance system had failed three months before June's crash, allowing two trains to come "dangerously close" to colliding. Records showed that the system also had failed in 2005, when three trains narrowly averted "disastrous collisions."

Other records revealed that Metro's decision, made after the crash, to sandwich older subway cars between newer, sturdier ones had not been supported by its own engineering studies and appeared to be a public relations move.

The biggest jolt came after an article reported that Metro had quietly barred safety monitors from walking along its live tracks to assess Metro's compliance with its own safety rules. During the ban, two workers were hit on the tracks and fatally injured.

The inspectors were given renewed access to live tracks in December. Within days, a team of safety monitors was nearly hit by a Metro train that appeared to be traveling at full speed and making no attempt to slow, as required by agency rules.

Also last month, The Post reported that the newspaper's analysis of safety data showed that more than 100 safety flaws identified after audits, accidents and other incidents languished unfixed, some for five years.

The accidents and news stories attracted unprecedented attention and criticism. Metro's safety became a focus of at least three hearings on Capitol Hill. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) called on U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to investigate the transit agency, at one point declaring, "I'm really hot about this." The Government Accountability Office and the Federal Transit Administration began looking into Metro operations.

In December, the Obama administration referred to Metro in calling for what it termed a historic step: taking federal control of safety regulation of subways and light rail systems nationwide.

Washington Post staff writer Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company