Metro goes electronic to track safety-related incidents

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 12, 2010; 2:21 PM

Metro plans to unveil a sophisticated safety tracking system next month that will enable it to detect hazardous trends in real time and help prevent accidents, Metro's top safety officer said Friday.

The development of the electronic accident and investigation system comes amid intense scrutiny of Metro by federal and local oversight bodies in the aftermath of last June's Red Line crash and other fatal accidents.

Metro's newly appointed chief safety officer, James Dougherty, said the Safety Management System will provide extensive data on incidents throughout Metro. Until now, Metro has relied upon a manual system largely involving paper reports and spreadsheets, which are cumbersome to access, he said.

"It's significant. The plan is to reduce the manual labor and have as close to real-time data as you [can] get," Dougherty said. The data were not integrated and had to be sifted by hand to discern any trends, Dougherty said. "If it was cumulative, it had to be done in a manual fashion."

Metro officials said direct costs for technology development and testing by experts are estimated at $600,000.

Safety overseers reserved judgment on whether the system will work as planned. "When it comes to accident tracking and . . . how they manage safety data, we've made our expectations clear," said Matt Bassett, head of the Tri-State Oversight Committee, which oversees safety at Metro. "We understand they are working on technology solutions to accomplish that, but we're still waiting to see what the final product will be."

Criticism of Metro's safety and oversight system intensified after the Red Line crash June 22, 2009, that killed nine and injured 80 and a string of other deadly accidents in recent months. An audit completed in March by the Federal Transit Administration called for across-the-board improvements in Metro's safety practices -- including an incident-tracking system.

In a response to the FTA audit in May, Metro's interim general manager, Richard Sarles, pledged that the agency would develop a "Web-based tool to allow for communication of safety-related information, including identified hazards and tracking across departments."

Sarles said initial development would be complete by the end of August.

Dougherty, however, said the system would be operating by the end of July. He said Metrobus is running a pilot program, including training, while requirements are being developed for its use in the rail system.

Dougherty said a robust system would allow Metro to apply filters, make queries, and identify possible trends and "watch areas" -- from flat tires to cracked rails. He said it would help transit officials answer the question: "If there is a failure, is it a single failure or a system failure?"

The system would also link incident and accident reports to Metro's work order system and workers' compensation data.

Supervisors would enter the data immediately, he said, acknowledging that "any good database is based on the information that is getting added, and frequently reports are not inputted until the end of the shift."

Metro, moreover, has struggled to correct safety problems already identified. The agency has not implemented more than 100 corrective action plans recommended by federal and local safety oversight bodies, a record which members of Metro's board of directors criticized this week.

Board Chairman Peter Benjamin pressed Dougherty to provide details on how old each of the corrective action plans was. "Clearly, that 33 were closed out in December told us something," he said, comparing that flurry of activity with the fewer than six each month that were closed from January through May. "We need to know, are these on schedule or behind schedule?"

Dougherty said Metro's goal was to complete "a minimum" of 10 corrective plans each month, with no more than 45 days transpiring for each.

Dougherty, 52, became Metro's top safety officer April 19, filling one of several vacancies in the safety department.

He came to Metro after serving as chief safety officer for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, and also served from 2004 to 2009 as general manager of safety at the Charlotte Area Transit System in North Carolina.

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