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

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 22, 2010; B01

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.

"There was some movement in Congress to get us the funding, but it was a slow process. After the crash, that definitely moved a lot faster," Catoe said. "It's unfortunate it takes a tragedy like the accident that happened on June 22 to cause that kind of quick action."

The federal money is vital to one of Metro's top safety priorities: replacing the oldest rail cars, the 1000 series, which make up a quarter of its fleet. The lead car of the striking train -- a 1000 series car -- compressed to a third of its original length during the June crash, and federal investigators consider the cars unsafe. Still, Catoe noted that the new cars will not arrive for two or three years.

The crash also spurred significant turnover in Metro's management team and has led to scrutiny of the overall governance of the agency, including its directors.

The approval of the new federal funds came with a requirement that the federal government appoint four members of Metro's board, two of whom joined the board in January. Last month, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell initiated a push to appoint two of his state's representatives to the board, and the Greater Washington Board of Trade has created a task force to assess Metro's governance structure.

Catoe was replaced by former New Jersey Transit chief Richard Sarles, who will remain for up to a year while a search for a new permanent general manager unfolds. Catoe's deputy, Gerald Francis, stepped down in December, along with the chief safety officer, Alexa Dupigny-Samuels, who became an emergency management coordinator at Metro. The top safety position remained unfilled -- one of several key vacancies in the department -- until Metro hired James Dougherty in April.

The crash led to a scathing FTA audit of Metro that depicted its safety department as dysfunctional and reinforced criticism of its oversight agency, the Tri-State Oversight Committee, as toothless. Maryland, Virginia and the District have moved to strengthen the TOC, giving it more full-time staff and resources.

Today, Dougherty is spearheading a six-month safety action plan, including setting up a computerized system to track safety incidents and increasing the safety department staff from the current 34 to 43. "We are always striving for that zero accident number," Dougherty said.

No easy answers

The Red Line crash prompted a significant push for federal transit legislation, including a comprehensive bill initiated by the Obama administration and introduced in both houses of Congress in December that would allow the federal government to regulate transit systems.

"After the [Metro] crash, I discovered that we have no jurisdiction," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "DOT ought to have the same jurisdiction over safety in transit" that it has over other modes of transportation, he said.

The legislation's goal is to allow the federal government to set down safety standards -- such as a ban on texting by train and bus operators -- and to strengthen the patchwork of 27 state safety oversight organizations, which have been understaffed and ineffective, officials said. It would also allow the Federal Transit Administration to assume oversight duties if states choose not to exercise them. Still, the legislation, which Mikulski said will be worked on this week in the Senate, has moved slowly.

Few see the federal legislation as a cure-all for Metro. "Anytime you can apply safety standards across the industry, it will almost certainly increase safety, but at what cost?" said Peter Benjamin, chairman of Metro's board of directors. "The concern for transit agencies looking at future federal legislation is . . . to what degree it will prevent us from spending money on improving service."

Metro's leadership, safety investigators, lawmakers and transportation officials agree that much more needs to be done -- legislatively and in changing Metro's culture -- before the agency can claim to have turned a corner on safety.

"We have to make sure there are standards that will be met once the television lights are turned off," Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) said at Monday's news conference.

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