Metro, laid bare

Monday, March 8, 2010

FIRST, THE apparently good news about Metro: As General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. gets set to step down next month, the agency has found a seasoned veteran, retired New Jersey Transit chief Richard Sarles, to take the reins on an interim basis while Metro's board of directors searches for a permanent replacement. Given the tiny universe of candidates qualified to oversee an operation of Metro's size, scope and vexing problems, Mr. Sarles's appointment means one less headache in the short term for the network's governing board, which already has its hands full with plenty of others.

And that leads us to the bad news, which is never in short supply at Metro. An audit performed by the Federal Transit Administration, at the request of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), has painted such a damning picture of systemic dysfunction at Metro -- in particular regarding the failure to adequately prioritize safety for passengers and workers -- that it's fair to wonder who in his right mind would want to take the job of running the agency on a permanent basis.

The audit conceded that other major transit networks in America are plagued by problems not unlike the ones that Metro faces. But make no mistake: As the FTA made clear, Metro's troubles are more deeply rooted and will be tougher to set right. In blunt terms, and occasionally an astonished tone, the report's authors point out shortcomings in regard to Metro's attitude and procedures governing safety that amount to something approaching gross negligence.

Among many other failings, the audit found that the officials directly responsible for safety are treated more or less as pariahs within the agency or the uncool kids at high school -- ignored, avoided and cut out of the decision-making loop. Other departments at Metro -- rail operations, track maintenance and engineering -- do not coordinate their activities regularly with safety officials and don't even share critical information and reports with them. And no wonder: Since Mr. Catoe took control of Metro in 2007, he has had four safety chiefs. Repeated overhauls of top management before and since Mr. Catoe's arrival have erased much of Metro's institutional memory.

Metro's safety office has become a sort of shell, with a quarter of its 41 positions unfilled and lacking the resources, technical expertise and personnel to safeguard passengers and workers. We do not underestimate the complexity and variety of causes that have led to the numerous fatal crashes, accidents and mishaps of the past year, but it's difficult to discount the deficits in Metro's internal safety operations as one likely contributing factor.

Mr. Sarles, who takes over at Metro in the first week of April, will be at the helm of one of the most investigated transit agencies ever. Four separate probes into grave accidents are now being conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board, including one into the Red Line crash last June that killed nine people.

The interim chief will hardly need reminding that revamping Metro's procedures, culture and attitudes toward safety will be job one. The federal audit may provide him with the outline of a road map for how to proceed.

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