NTSB hearing to focus on D.C. Metro automated controls, gaps in oversight

By Lena H. Sun and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 24, 2010; 10:13 AM

A panel of National Transportation Safety Board investigators opened a three-day hearing into the fatal June 22 crash by grilling the head of the Metro board of directors on the panel's oversight of safety at Washington's beleaguered transit agency.

Steve Klejst, head of the operations portion of the investigation, peppered Metro Board Chair Peter Benjamin on communications over safety concerns between the board and Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr., as well as with federal and local oversight groups.

It will be several months before the NTSB issues a formal finding on the probable cause of the crash. Investigators will use information from the hearing to prepare the final report on the accident and additional safety recommendations by the first anniversary of the crash.

But the testimony, and information already released by investigators, should make clear the general outlines of what caused the crash, officials said.

In addition, the NTSB wants to address broader issues: how Metro identifies and corrects safety problems, and the adequacy of state and federal oversight.

Asked by Klejst whether the board had routine interaction with the Tri-State Oversight Committee, Benjamin replied: "There was no formal set of reports and no formal set of meetings that I remember relative to that," prior to last fall, when The Washington Post reported that Metro was barring TOC inspectors from the tracks.

After discovering Metro staff was impeding the TOC inspections, "we did invite [TOC members] to come on a regular basis and brief us," Benjamin said.

Yet Benajmin said that Board members, accused of being "micro managers," intended to exert broad policy guidance on safety, and would not probe Metro's day-to-day conduct on safety unless a major problem came to light.

"If we believe that the general manager or staff are not acting with an appropriate level of safety concern . . . we would explore that in greater detail with the general manager," Benjamin said.

Klejst then turned to Catoe and Acting Chief Safety Officer Michael Taborn to quiz them on Metro's internal reporting on safety problems. Taborn explained how Metro's lead safety officer did not report directly to the general manager until after the Red Line crash that killed 9 people.

"The chief safety officer prior to the accident reported to the chief administrative officer, who reported directly to the general manager," Taborn said. The day after the Red Line crash, Catoe changed the organizational structure so that the safety officer would report directly to him.

Officials from Metro, its regional safety monitor and the Federal Transit Administration are among the nearly two dozen witnesses scheduled to testify. Tuesday's witnesses are all from Metro. They include Catoe; the rail chief and acting deputy, Dave Kubicek; Taborn; and Benjamin. Metro engineers are also scheduled to testify.

Federal investigators have focused on the failure of the automatic train-control system in the June crash, in which one train slammed into the back of another that was stopped north of the Fort Totten Metro station. The board has issued several safety recommendations urging Metro to install a real-time backup to the automated system and has advised other transit agencies to make sure that they have adequate safety redundancy.

Metro officials described the failure of the control system as a "freak occurrence." But an investigation by The Washington Post found that the system failed more than once before the crash. Ed Dobranetski, chief NTSB investigator on the crash, said the board will examine those incidents.

The board also will scrutinize Metro's testing procedures and maintenance of its train control components, he said. Five days before the accident, a Metro crew replaced a key piece of circuitry, but the equipment malfunctioned and no one at Metro detected the problem, investigators and transit officials have said.

Testimony on Wednesday and Thursday will be devoted to state and federal oversight of transit agencies.

Unlike with other forms of transportation, the federal government cedes primary oversight of subways to a patchwork of state-level safety oversight boards. For Metro, the monitoring body is the Tri-State Oversight Committee, an organization with no employees, no office and no phone number. The committee has no direct regulatory authority over Metro. Committee members work for local and state transportation departments.

In recent months, a Washington Post investigation has documented repeated instances in which the committee was unsuccessful in obtaining information from Metro about near-collisions and other safety breakdowns.

Safety experts and federal officials say the incidents reflect a fundamental flaw with subway systems: a lack of effective and enforceable oversight, which leaves transit systems in charge of policing their own safety.

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