Metro simply has to get serious about safety

By Robert McCartney
Thursday, July 29, 2010; B01

The Metro transit system now has a detailed blueprint, thanks to the federal government, for how to strengthen its focus on safety and prevent fatal crashes like last year's Red Line accident.

Based on their record, however, Metro officials will mostly ignore key parts of the suggested plan.

But we mustn't let them do it again.

Metro's sorry history on safety should end now. The public pays for Metro, through fares and taxes. It has every right to insist that the transit system adopt the recommendations in the devastating report issued Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board.

How do we do it? To start, don't listen to Metro apologists who say the problem is just about money. This is a favorite tactic, especially of some Metro board members, to avoid talking about the system's other shortcomings.

They're only half right. As I've said before, the transit system, to be safe, does need a lot more cash in coming years. It should spend billions of dollars on new rail cars that don't crumple readily in an accident. It needs to replace nearly 1,500 electronic track-monitoring devices prone to send faulty signals of the sort that led to the Fort Totten tragedy 13 months ago.

But the NTSB took pains in its admirable report to emphasize two messages that weren't about money at all.

First, the Red Line crash, like some previous Metro accidents, was directly attributable to what the NTSB labeled an "anemic safety culture."

That's a fix that doesn't require a fare increase or a new government subsidy. It does mean that Metro must undergo a top-to-bottom overhaul of its institutional habits and mind-set so that everyone places a higher priority on safety.

"When safety is more important than schedules, their organizational culture can be a success," NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman said.

The term "safety culture" might strike outsiders as vague. In the transportation world, though, a healthy safety culture has specific features detailed in textbooks.

Based on the NTSB report, Metro comes up short in virtually every category.

For instance, in a good safety culture, signs of danger are systematically investigated, and the problems are fixed. At Metro, however, it emerged at Tuesday's hearing that workers were ignoring thousands of alarms a week triggered by the faulty signaling devices, known as track circuit modules. The attitude was: The machines don't work, but there haven't been any crashes, so why worry?

"The fact that they were ignoring the alarm system that was put into place surprised me. I think a lot of it has to do with complacency," said Jackie Jeter, president of the union that represents Metro workers.

A healthy safety culture also has strong communication within the organization. At Metro, important safety initiatives got lost in the bureaucracy.

In particular, Metro failed to use a method of testing track circuit modules that could have prevented the Red Line accident. The engineering department developed the method after a near-crash in 2005 at the Rosslyn Station. But the maintenance department, which would have carried out the tests, didn't get the message.

Metro's deep cultural problems suggest that the next general manager needs to be a powerful change agent. The transit system needs someone pushy and uncompromising like -- dare I say it? -- D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. (He or she would need to be much more diplomatic than Rhee, though, because the job requires adept handling of political personalities and agendas in multiple jurisdictions.)

But the responsibility belongs to more than just the top executive, and that was the subject of the second key message from the NTSB.

Although it stopped short of saying so explicitly, presumably for political reasons, the NTSB made clear that it lacks confidence in the Metro board of directors.

One of the few changes to the report adopted at the meeting was passage of an amendment that called on the Metro board to "explicitly and publicly" assume responsibility for the system's overall safety. Without identifying them by name, NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt tartly criticized former Metro board chairman Jim Graham, who also is a D.C. Council member (D-Ward 1), and the current chairman, Peter Benjamin, who represents Maryland.

Benjamin is abroad, but Graham's response wasn't reassuring. Although he said the Metro board will "take all of the recommendations to heart," he accused the NTSB of going too far in its criticisms and failing to give Metro credit for trying to buy safer rail cars even before the Red Line crash.

"I thought it was really quite unfair and misleading," Graham said. "We're not tone-deaf. We get it. We got it before. We didn't need the pejorative rhetoric."

The NTSB's concerns are understandable, given its history with Metro. As Hersman noted, the NTSB found fault with Metro's board and management practices as far back as 1996 after an accident at the Shady Grove Station. She remarked that the board is saying the right things today, but stressed, "We need to see less talk and a lot more action."

The question, then, is who is going to force board members to act? Ultimate responsibility rests with the folks who appoint them: Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, Northern Virginia jurisdictions and the federal government. If the board doesn't demonstrate an unmistakable commitment to embracing the NTSB's suggestions, then the politicians should appoint a new group that will.

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM).

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