Changing the safety culture at Metro

Metro's board met last week to discuss safety recommendations made since the 2009 Red Line crash that killed nine, shown above.
Metro's board met last week to discuss safety recommendations made since the 2009 Red Line crash that killed nine, shown above. (James M. Thresher For The Washington Post)
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By Richard Sarles
Sunday, August 15, 2010

At Metro, there is no higher value than safety, and we are taking cooperation with safety oversight agencies to a new level. Last Monday's highly productive meeting between the Metro board of directors and the National Transportation Safety Board about the NTSB's safety recommendations after the June 22, 2009, Red Line accident demonstrated our commitment to safety and our recognition that Metro's success depends on constant improvement.

Reorienting our safety culture will require an enduring commitment, from the top all the way through the organization. The change will take years. However, we have begun putting the foundation in place through, among other actions, a specific and measurable response to each of the NTSB's recommendations.

What is being done? First, because the cornerstone of any successful safety program is an ability to identify and prevent hazards before they occur, we have added staff to our safety department and established a direct reporting line from the chief safety officer to the general manager. The Metro board has also directed that the chief safety officer report monthly on our progress, including responsiveness to oversight agencies such as the NTSB. To set benchmarks, a safety culture survey was recently completed by 97 percent of Metro employees.

To further enlist the help of our employees -- they are our eyes and ears on safety -- we have established an anonymous hotline for reporting concerns, while the board has reinforced our whistleblower protection policy. We have also expanded safety training and initiated discussions with our largest union on how to encourage reporting of near misses without punitive consequences.

At the same time, we are putting tools in place to identify hazards and monitor our progress in responding to them. We are developing a Safety Management System to track all safety-related incidents, investigations and corrective actions.

While we strengthen our safety culture, we have taken dozens of other actions, many of which comply with Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and NTSB recommendations. Among the most significant, we have awarded a contract to satisfy our top safety priority (and a recommendation from the NTSB) to replace the 1000 series rail cars, the oldest in our fleet. The new cars not only feature advanced crashworthiness technology but also represent a tremendous upgrade, with additional amenities such as in-car digital information displays, new flooring, security cameras, refreshed interiors and overhead handles. Notably, we completed retrofitting all of our 1000 series cars with rollback protection last month; we had already completely retrofitted the 2000, 3000 and 6000 series cars. Altogether that's about three-quarters of our fleet.

Our new safety culture cannot be created without a commensurate financial commitment. The WMATA board anticipated this by including $6.9 million in Metro's operating budget to address FTA audit recommendations and to provide additional drug-testing capabilities. The board also established a $5 billion, six-year capital spending plan, the largest capital budget since the completion of the rail system, to ensure that we can improve equipment and infrastructure. And the board dedicated more than $30 million over the next three years in Metro's capital budget to address the NTSB's recommendations.

Further changes are happening fast to comply with the NTSB recommendations. We are replacing all Alstom GRS-generation track circuit modules, part of Metro's automatic train control system, that were implicated in the Red Line crash.

The Metro board has hired a consultant to analyze our automatic train control system, identify all potential areas of failure and propose solutions.

Senior staff will review data from onboard train recorders monthly, together with Local 689 members. In September, our senior safety committee will review our progress on all open corrective action plans and the findings from safety audits.

Finally, we will make sure that all our rail cars have onboard event recorders and make improvements of all onboard recorders part of our preventive maintenance.

In the past year, Metro has faced a number of challenges, and there are more to come. But we also have forged better partnerships with oversight agencies, and, with their help, and our board's leadership, we are on a path to improving safety and service reliability.

The writer is general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

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