Safety and oversight are within Metro's grasp

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

STRICTLY SPEAKING, the National Transportation Safety Board broke no news Tuesday by announcing its formal finding that malfunctioning track circuits were the immediate technical cause of the Red Line crash in June 2009 that killed a train operator and eight passengers. That's been known for months, as has the likelihood that NTSB would recommend that Metro replace its 1000 series rail cars, which buckle in a crash, as well as defective track circuit components.

Still, it was chilling to listen to NTSB members render their final judgment about the worst accident in Metro's history -- a tragedy that, they made clear, could have been avoided. What the board reported was that the crash, and subsequent accidents, were the result not just of bad hardware but of organizational and cultural failures so profound that fixing them will require remaking the nation's second-most heavily used rail transit system from the ground up.

NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman insisted the findings did not constitute an indictment. Nonetheless, her own verdict was withering. "It's like we're talking to someone who's tone deaf -- they're not hearing it, they're not getting it," Ms. Hersman said of the failure of Metro and its board of directors to heed warnings about safety failures. "If they don't listen this time, I'm not really sure what can be done here. There's got to be some action, there's got to be some change." Not coincidentally, the NTSB listed a lack of safety culture as the first of six factors that contributed to the accident.

For all the clout it wields from its bully pulpit as the nation's oracle of transportation safety, the NTSB has no oversight or enforcement capacity. Nor, when it comes to the nation's urban transit systems, does the federal government. Of several dozen recommendations the board announced Tuesday, among the most critical was implementing a federal oversight and enforcement regime under the Transportation Department and the Federal Transit Administration. As Ms. Hersman noted, it is absurd that Washington can regulate commuter train systems such as MARC and freight trains but not urban transit systems. After all, more people board rail transit systems in this country each day than board airplanes. Congress must act to provide the federal government with the necessary statutory authority to rectify this.

The NTSB was also harshly critical of Metro's board, which it portrayed as scarcely aware, at the time of the June accident and subsequently, of the need for more muscular monitoring than is provided by the toothless Tristate Oversight Committee. The committee, which is bereft of staff and resources, for years has provided only nominal review of the transit agency.

Building a culture of safety takes years; it's not a project to complete but a continuous process and habit of mind that can be cultivated with the help of good management and oversight. There is no reason to think that Metro and its 10,000 employees are no more or less receptive to a safety culture than any other transit agency. With the proper support and legislative framework, they can be part of the solution.

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