Metro safety delays could be measured in deaths

By Robert McCartney
Thursday, February 25, 2010; B01

This week's long-awaited federal hearing on Metro's sorry record of fatal accidents has raised a macabre question: How many more people will die before Metro and the Washington region get serious about instilling an effective culture of safety in the transit system?

The testimony at the National Transportation Safety Board also makes me wonder whether it's realistic to expect Metro's current directors to push through urgent, necessary changes given that the board comprises mostly the same people who've let the system deteriorate.

Our region's top political leaders -- including District Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) -- need to get involved. They should either ensure that the current board does what's needed, and quickly, or intervene to have a new team installed.

The humiliating alternative is to accept Monday's proposal by four U.S. senators for a federal takeover of the board. It's bad enough that the District's residents lack a vote in Congress. Do we now want senators from Connecticut, New Jersey, Alabama and Louisiana telling us how to run our subway?

The depth of the problem was painfully evident in the questioning of Metro's current leaders by NTSB officials at the three-day public session, scheduled to end Thursday. Hearing Chairman Robert Sumwalt, in particular, made clear he thought Metro as an institution has failed to create a safety-conscious environment. In other words, the problem goes well beyond the need to modernize aging equipment.

For instance, Sumwalt noted on Tuesday that Metro was informed in both 2007 and 2009 of numerous, serious violations of rules designed to protect its employees working on rail tracks. Since 2002, Metro accidents have accounted for 42 percent of the entire nation's toll of track-worker fatalities.

"In the past, when we see widespread procedural noncompliance in other investigations that the agency has looked at, it is oftentimes an indicator of an unhealthy safety culture," Sumwalt said. "It's not that you have to go out and adjust your worker protection program. It's that you've got to recalibrate the entire organization."

The response from Metro Acting Deputy General Manager David Kubicek wasn't reassuring. Although Metro needed to change its "business processes," he said, employees who neglected safety were "isolated cases."

Sumwalt also cited a written presentation to the Metro board delivered three days after the June 22 Red Line crash that killed nine people. It listed two items under "safety initiatives for rail": playing prerecorded safety announcements over station intercoms and improving managers' investigative techniques.

"It appears to me that what we're really focused on here is preventing slips and falls . . . and escalator injuries," Sumwalt said. "My question to you is: Is [Metro] looking at the right things when it comes to trying to measure and predict rail catastrophes?"

The lukewarm response from Metro Board Chairman Peter Benjamin: "We're certainly open to suggestions for things that we should be looking at."

The list of safety shortcomings grew relentlessly as the hearings continued. Wednesday's session revealed that Metro mixed different types of signaling equipment -- in precisely the spot where signal problems might have caused the Red Line crash -- despite strong warnings from the manufacturer against doing so.

In Metro's defense, you're still more likely to die in an accident driving on local highways than riding the subway. Metro's budgets have been shortchanged for years. Benjamin said the right things at points, urging a "change in the basic culture toward safety within the organization."

Benjamin, who's been in the rotating job of chairman for less than a month, also is reaching out for help. He's asked the Department of Transportation, American Public Transportation Association and the AFL-CIO to recommend five or six top people for Metro to hire as temporary consultants on how to build a comprehensive safety approach.

But I have reservations about whether Benjamin and the rest of the board have enough political influence and will to drive through a rapid, major transformation of a large, troubled institution that also happens to be broke.

Apart from the recent addition of two federal appointees, the board is dominated by pretty much the same combination of middle-ranking politicians and transportation experts who've been on it for some time. They have good intentions and, in some cases, a lot of expertise. But they've been delivering inadequate results, and the job ahead might be too big for them. That's why I'd like to see the region's top political leaders come together to make fixing Metro a priority.

Delay could be costly. Metro Acting Chief Safety Officer Michael Taborn said at the hearing that one candidate for the permanent job of chief safety officer had said in an interview that it was taking his or her transit agency "maybe 12 years to impact the culture."

Considering that Metro has suffered 17 deaths in the past five years, that makes for some pretty chilling arithmetic.

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM).

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