Since Red Line crash, efforts to improve Metro safety have lost momentum

A collection of videos from the deadly Metro crash on the Red Line in June 2009 from The Washington Post. Including a new intimate look into the emergency response.
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A year after the deadliest accident in Metro's history, the transit authority's safety record has worsened, and officials acknowledge that there has been too little progress.

The crash was a catalyst for an examination of transit safety nationwide -- spurring a push by the Obama administration for federal oversight legislation, a shakeup in Metro leadership and unparalleled scrutiny of the agency by the National Transportation Safety Board, which now has four open investigations into incidents at Metro.

So far, however, the legislation remains stalled in Congress, state oversight is fractured and weak, Metro lacks a permanent leadership team, and the NTSB's final report on the cause of last June's Red Line crash, which killed nine and injured dozens, isn't expected until late July.

"There are significant deficiencies in their safety culture," said Deborah A.P. Hersman, chairman of the NTSB. "We do not see the frequency of accidents on other properties that we are seeing on Metro.

"The most disappointing . . . is when we issue recommendations and those issues do not get corrected. For us, that is a big concern about Metro," she said. Nine NTSB recommendations issued to Metro in July and September, in the aftermath of the accident, remain open, according to NTSB records.

On Monday, lawmakers on Capitol Hill renewed a call for the passage of legislation promoted by the Obama administration, which would allow federal regulation of transit agencies nationwide.

"We don't want death by Metro any longer," Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) said at a news conference, noting that 13 passengers and Metro workers have been killed in the rail system in the past year. "I am not prepared to give [Metro] the Good Housekeeping stamp of approval," she has said, calling Metro's safety improvements "a work in progress."

Changes in safety

Soon after Red Line Train 112 rammed into Train 214 just north of the Fort Totten Station, Metro and transit agencies nationwide began taking the first steps to prevent future accidents.

"The accident was a catalyst for change, and people are changing their safety systems to make sure they don't have a similar event," including by making significant investments "in a very tight economic period," Hersman said.

For example, transit agencies are examining their procedures and equipment, particularly signaling mechanisms. Metro and other agencies are pursuing backups for their automatic train control systems, which the NTSB recommended after the crash.

The accident also put increased federal funding for Metro on a fast track, accelerating legislation signed by the president early this year that authorizes $1.5 billion in dedicated federal money -- which requires annual appropriations -- for capital improvements at Metro over the next decade.

"We weren't moving fast enough," acknowledged former general manager John B. Catoe Jr., who left the agency in April.

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