Metro interim chief announces plan to strengthen rail system

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 22, 2010

Metro's new interim general manager, responding Wednesday on Capitol Hill to strong criticism from lawmakers and experts about a pervasive lack of safety and oversight at the rail agency, announced a six-month plan to improve the system.

Richard Sarles's announcement, during testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, followed harsh comments from Federal Transit Administration Administrator Peter M. Rogoff, who said Metro is responsible for "grotesque" violations of safety for track workers.

Noting that eight Metro employees have been killed on the job since 2005, Rogoff called that "an inexcusable record," adding that the agency's safety office is "dysfunctional and ineffective."

Acknowledging the system's troubles, Sarles, in his first testimony since formally taking the helm at Metro on April 2, told the committee that "the Metro system must be brought into a state of good repair . . . or the system will continue to degrade."

He said the new plan also would close a $189 million budget gap for the new fiscal year.

The committee released a scathing report on Metro compiled by transit expert David L. Gunn, who served as Metro's general manager in the 1990s. The report, delivered privately to Metro's board of directors last month, concluded that "Metro Rail has downhill momentum that will be difficult to stop!" according to a copy obtained by The Washington Post.

Gunn took a hands-on approach, discovering a broken rail and seven concrete station platforms shored up by wood, according to the report. He also found serious problems with Metro management, including hostility between departments. In an opening statement, panel Chairman Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) said: "There was so much bad blood between the engineering and maintenance departments that they would not even speak to each other."

Rogoff highlighted serious communication problems, as well as a "completely marginalized safety department," in summarizing the 21 recommendations for Metro and the Tri-state Oversight Committee (TOC), which oversees safety at Metro, that were issued March 4.

Metro has until May 4 to respond to 10 safety recommendations the FTA made that focus on understaffing, lack of expertise and poor communication at Metro's safety department, as well as its failure to identify and handle dangerous conditions before they cause accidents.

Rogoff said that Metro has taken some "encouraging steps," such as naming a new chief safety officer, but that it was difficult to determine whether communication had improved. "The proof will be in the agencies' performance," he said.

Sarles said he agreed with the FTA's and Gunn's recommendations, and indicated that he is moving rapidly to address them, acknowledging a need for "significant" improvements. He outlined a plan that prioritizes safety training, beefed-up protection for whistle-blowers, the appointment of safety personnel as well as an updated manual designed to increase protection for track workers.

In one of his first steps, Sarles said he had revised Metro's proposed operating and capital budgets for next year to set aside more money to address safety. One focus will be safety training, he said. Sarles said he also inserted a placeholder amount in the capital budget in preparation for implementing safety recommendations expected to be released in June by the National Transportation Safety Board after investigation of the June 2009 Red Line accident.

Metro's board of directors will begin discussions Thursday on how to close the gap in the $1.4 billion operating budget for fiscal 2011, which Sarles called "the most difficult financial year that Metro has ever had to face."

Addressing reliability, Sarles pledged to add more eight-car trains for the Red Line, to give passengers more time to board, and to increase escalator maintenance and repair, among other steps.

Lawmakers focused on the lack of safety oversight at Metro, with some voicing support for strengthening the TOC and others calling for the three local jurisdictions that fund Metro to set up an independent safety commission, an idea first proposed Tuesday in a white paper issued by the governors of Maryland and Virginia and the mayor of D.C.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) called for a Metro safety commission funded and directed by the legislatures of the District, Maryland and Virginia, not through public agencies in the three jurisdictions, as the white paper proposed.

Lawmakers noted that an initiative by the Obama administration to establish minimum federal safety standards and oversight for the nation's public transit agencies would probably take time, and some Republicans on the committee criticized that plan, saying it would add another layer of regulatory bureaucracy without necessarily improving safety, given the uniqueness of the different area transit systems.

Said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.): "If we are going to set new standards . . . on Metro . . . then the federal government has to provide operational dollars."

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