Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, January 26, 2010; 10:00 AM
Two Metro track workers were struck and killed by a piece of track equipment near the Rockville Metrorail station early Tuesday, officials said, the latest in a series of serious incidents that have plagued the system over the last year.
Video Report: Metro Spokeswoman: 'Something went horribly wrong this morning' (Newschannel 8, Jan. 26)
Red Line service will be disrupted during the morning rush hour as the incident is investigated. Red Line trains will not operate from the Shady Grove or Rockville stations; inbound trains will originate at Twinbrook, and outbound trains will end their routes at the Twinbrook station.
Robert Thomson was online Tuesday, Jan. 26, at 10 a.m. ET to discuss the latest news about the accident, the latest in a series of accidents that have caused federal lawmakers to question the safety of the entire Metro system.
Robert Thomson: Let's talk about Metro's safety and its response to accidents, including its communications with riders. But first, I'd like to join the many expressing sorrow about the deaths of two more track workers.
These are the people who get out at difficult times and places to try to keep the rest of us safe. The original design of the Metrorail system wasn't the best for worker safety, but the transit authority clearly hasn't been doing right by its people in protecting them.
Rockville, Md.: I saw the emergency and TV crews -- North of the Rockville station. Why couldn't they operate the Rockville station? Also, no disrespect to the workers, but why do the tracks need to remain closed 6 hrs+ after the incident -- take some pictures, measure a couple things -- this was a pretty clear to understand accident, at least from point of investigating on the tracks.
Robert Thomson: In any discussion following a fatal accident, I find it's best to state the obvious right away: The tragedy is that we lost people. Everything else is an inconvenience.
Many people do have legitimate questions about the aftermath of such incidents, as does Rockville.
Following an incident like this, the National Transportation Safety Board is notified and sends in its investigators. They have a responsibility to study every aspect of the accident. They don't know what they're dealing with when they move in.
Closing off the stations on either side of the accident is not unusual. We saw that last June 22 on the other side of the Red Line.
During any disruption, Metro also has to deal with the issue of where the track switches are located. It needs to be able to turn around the trains effectively from whatever station it picks as the temporary terminal.
Kingstowne, Va.: I understand why there is talk of federal regulation of mass transit systems in light of WMATA's recent annus horribilis (to borrow a phrase from HM the Queen). On the other hand, it strikes me as reinventing the wheel when you have subways in New York and Boston that have been operating for over 100 years. Of course, they're not incident-free; no mass transit can ever be completely without problems. But will someone please explain to me why we are supposed to believe that federal regulators will be more competent and know more about how to run a subway than the people in New York who carry over 5 million people per day and over a billion a year?
I also feel compelled to note that at least today's incident did not involve trains in revenue service. That's not intended to minimize what happened, but in my mind there is a distinction between a maintenance accident and an accident involving passengers.
Robert Thomson: I don't believe the fact that workers were killed instead of passengers lessens the tragedy. Certainly, track work is a dangerous job and Metro employees know that going in. But they should have a reasonable expectation that the transit authority is doing as much to protect them as it does to protect us passengers.
The oversight system we have now for Metro clearly isn't working. Post reporters Joe Stephens and Lena H. Sun have illustrated this over the past half year. The Tri-State Oversight Committee is toothless. For months, a Metro official denied it access to the tracks.
That and a string of oversight failures showed the need for tougher review not only of our transit system but of other urban transit systems. As a native New Yorker, I don't believe any big transit system is good enough to exempt itself from that level of review.
The original design of the Metrorail system wasn't the best for worker safety: Dr G, can you elaborate on that? How does Metro's design differ from other systems to the detriment of worker safety?
Robert Thomson: In many areas, the work space on the sides of the tunnels and between the trains is not sufficient. Sometimes, it looks like the original designers never anticipated that people would have to fix anything.
Baltimore, Md.: The train operator on the Red Line this morning talked about the station closures due to an "overnight accident." When I got to my office, I went immediately to the Post's Web site and was surprised when there was nothing on the home page. So, of course, I went to the Get There blog and there was plenty of information.
Any idea why there was nothing on the home page. (There still isn't, by the way.)
washingtonpost.com: Local Homepage
Robert Thomson: I'll bet you've been looking at the National home page. The display on the Local home page has been huge all morning. Something like this is a big deal to thousands of our readers, so we play it big.
We've tried to keep up with technology and people's changing habits by providing more ways for our readers to find breaking news. On any transportation issue, we have a team that posts to the Get There blog. But we've also added a Breaking News blog to the Local home page and our editors dispatch reporters to the scene of any incident like this.
The Local home page is intended to highlight there work. (We also use Twitter and Facebook to spread the word.)
Frederick, Md.: You may have answered this, but any word on the afternoon commute?
Robert Thomson: No, not yet. And that's certainly something we're all watching for. We'll post updates right away to guide you home this afternoon. (Assuming you were clever enough to get in. This was a huge disruption on Metro's busiest line.)
Right now, the National Transportation Safety Board controls the accident site. The investigators will tell Metro when they are done, then Metro will clear the area. Then train service will resume.
Retired Railroader: Was this hyrail vehicle a pickup truck or a larger van or heavier truck? Was it moving in reverse and if so was it equipped with an audible warning signal for reverse movement? The railroad industry has roadway worker rules specifically for track maintenance employees, are Metro employees covered by this?
Robert Thomson: It's a rare thing for the average passenger to see one of Metro's "prime movers," the type of rail maintenance equipment involved in the accident, according to the preliminary report. They normally are on the tracks overnight, working on maintenance projects that involve the delivery of supplies to the track workers, or the lifting of tracks and switch equipment.
The prime movers I've seen are yellow flatbed, diesel-powered rail cars with white cranes atop. Very visible on the tracks. (Again, my description is based on a preliminary report. We're have more details about exactly what type of equipment was involved.)
Yes, Metro has a very strict safety code for the people on the tracks and the people in the operations control center who are supposed to be monitoring their activities and the operators of rail equipment.
Gaithersburg, Md.: Just reporting in: Arrived in the shuttle line at Shady Grove at 7 a.m. sharp. It must have been just before the rush, because my commute was about a half-hour longer than usual (get off at Judiciary Square). Everything went smoothly, my train wasn't too crowded, and I arrived at a job that doesn't put my life in danger.
I feel for the workers' families.
Robert Thomson: Thanks for the report. Based on your timing, I think you probably were one of the early luck ones, as far as the morning commute goes.
The emergency shuttle buses are never enough to compensate for the lack of trains during the height of rush hour. Crowds build very quickly. In any emergency like this, if you have an alternative to riding the shuttles, it's best to use that alternative.
Silver Spring, Md.: Having seen reactions online, it seems like people are almost used to seeing such tragedies from Metro, which is horrifying on many levels. It does highlight how often these accidents are happening though. Is there any chance of federal intervention to try to fix safety lapses?
Robert Thomson: Yes, absolutely. Congress, the White House and the U.S. Department of Transportation all have now taken an interest in Metro safety, and rail transit safety in general.
The Post continues to view it as a high priority in our coverage.
And of course, the NTSB is investigating this incident. (No report yet from NTSB on the June 22 accident, by the way.)
Kingstowne again: When I said "in my mind there is a distinction between a maintenance accident and an accident involving passengers," I wasn't trying to suggest that what happened today was unimportant or that it should be ignored. It was more an attempt (perhaps not well-phrased) to say that an incident like today's doesn't lead me to think that regular Metrorail commuters should conclude that the system is inherently unsafe. From a passenger-safety standpoint, an incident like today's is different from the sort of thing that happened last June. Of course it still bears investigation to figure out how and why it happened.
Robert Thomson: Thanks for writing back. Here's my take: There shouldn't be any distinction in Metro's mind between how it approaches worker safety and how it approaches passenger safety. They should be together as Metro's highest priority: Getting people home safely.
We riders should view them the same way. An incident like this should give us cause to question Metro's ability to keep people safe, just as the June 22 crash did.
While that's the bottom line to me, I still consider Metro a safe system, and transit generally as a safer option than driving. I won't stop riding Metro because of this. (Plus, it's my job.)
Washington, D.C.: Since the equipment that struck the men was essentially a truck equipped to be on the tracks, why is it that the workers didn't see it or hear it?
Robert Thomson: That's very unclear right now. Overnight work on the tracks is very routine. That section of the Red Line has been getting a lot of work lately.
Under Metro's rules, there's absolutely no excuse for surprises out there. Metro employees are trained to look out for each other, to wear standard, very visible vests and helmets, to carry radios and flashlights.
Germantown, Md.: By later in the morning, things were running very smoothly. I arrived at Shady Grove just before 9:00, got right on a bus, and then got right on a train at Twinbrook. Only delay was from 355 traffic.
I should point out that the Shady Grove parking lots were virtually empty (think Saturday). So Metro clearly had a much lighter passenger load than normal to reroute via bus.
Robert Thomson: I'm glad that went all right for you and your fellow passengers. Perhaps Metro was doing a decent job getting the word out to travelers that they should avoid Shady Grove this morning?
Between about 8 and 9 a.m., Post reporters were encountering a lot of traffic congestion and shuttle crowding in the Rockville Pike corridor. Also, we heard reports that downtown stations were unusually crowded during that time.
It's likely to be a bad trip home this afternoon if the stations remain closed, unless riders study their options.
Germantown, Md.: I understand that WMATA receives a certain amount of federal funding. How much does it receive and how does that amount compare with federal funding received by other large metropolitan commuter systems (eg., in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta)?
Robert Thomson: Metro gets an unusually large share of federal funding, because it's responsible for carrying so much of the federal work force. (Don't have the $ figure.) Also, the SmartBenefits program is a huge indirect subsidy to Metro. It pays federal employees to leave their cars at home.
Silver Spring, Md.: I remember reading something on the Post Web site about rivalries and lack of communication between track workers and train operators.
This is a different situation, but are there also rivalries involved here? And will this mean the end of them?
Robert Thomson: In any incident like this, two things happen: The first information that comes out winds up getting clarified and refined. (We're early in that phase now.) Then the investigators, after reviewing data for months, come out with their final report, detailing what actually happened.
We're going to learn a lot more about this one. But I think I can offer this: The scenario described by Metro so far is different from train operators and track workers. The vehicle involved was a piece of maintenance equipment. One thing I don't know -- and there are many things I don't know at this point -- is whether that piece of equipment was working with those track workers or was on some other assignment at the time.
Baltimore, Md.: My husband is an electrician for Metro, and often has to work on the track lights. He tells me that he and his co-workers have never attended a safety class, but were given a piece of paper to sign that said they had received safety training. Several of the employees refused to sign and were told they could be "written-up" as a result. Many have not received necessary safety equipment, and the tethers on the safety harnesses (used when working on lifts) are so long that the employee would hit the ground long before coming to the end of the tether. I am very concerned for his safety.
Robert Thomson: That's very disturbing and would be a clear violation of Metro's safety rules. (Metro workers are required to take safety courses and pass written tests and receive safety ID badges before they are allowed on the tracks.) We'd very much like to hear more about this. You could write to me at email@example.com or to reporter Lena Sun, who's been investigating safety issues, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Washington, D.C.: Did any employees escape injury and death, or would the equipment have killed another half dozen workers if they had been nearby?
Robert Thomson: We keep getting updates on the incident, but many things about the scenario remain unclear.
I can share a couple of updates from Post accounts:
Anthony Garland, chief safety officer for the union that represents most Metro employees, said there appeared to be a communication problem between the department in charge of the truck that was on the track and the Automated Train Control department, whose technicians were installing new train control equipment in the track bed.
The operator of the truck, known as a high rail vehicle, was maneuvering it backwards down the track when it hit the two workers, fatally injuring them, said Garland.
The NTSB also is referring to the vehicle involved as a hi-rail vehicle, also known as a Hy-rail, which I recall is how our previous commenter, a retired rail worker, referred to it. That's a truck that can operate on either the street or rails. It's different from the flatbed "prime mover" that I was referring to earlier.
Bethesda, Md.: The SmartBenefits program is not a subsidy to Metro. Since every additional rider costs more than the fare paid, it is a detriment. It's a subsidy to car commuters since it reduces road crowding by moving commuters to the rails.
Robert Thomson: But wouldn't it cost the same to operate the rail cars, whether they carried 150 or 100 passengers? Metro is telling us that we're in the current fiscal crisis because of a decline in ridership.
Gaithersburg, Md.: The accident happened 8 hours ago. When is Metro going to send out a Metro Alert about it?
Robert Thomson: First, this news: Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson is telling us that Metro expects normal service by the afternoon commute.
On your question: I've been seeing Metro e-alerts all morning as well as alerts on Metro's Twitter page. The first statement from Metro about the accident and the prospects for morning service was issued at 4:51 a.m.
Now, that's not to say that notifications are adequate. Getting the word to riders in an emergency is a longstanding problem for the transit authority.
Arlington, Va.: Once again Metro has shown to be inept when it comes to communications. I arrived at Shady Grove at 5:15 this morning where I was directed by the station manager to proceed to the opposite side of the station for a shuttle bus. I got to the opposite side only to have a transit police officer put me on a bus to Rockville. When the bus driver was asked whether we could catch a train at Rockville or not she told us we could! At Rockville the station manager had locked himself in his little booth and was refusing to come out and help riders! We ended up having to all pitch in and take a cab from Rockville as there were no employees or shuttle buses in sight!
What I really want to know though is how their communication could be so horrible when they had three hours advance notice prior to the system opening? At the very least there should have been employees directing people appropriately and plenty of organized shuttle buses.
Robert Thomson: This is what I mean. Metro recovers as an incident develops, but it continues to have communication problems early on after a problem occurs. (Including problem communicating with its own people so they can deliver a consistent, authoritative message to riders.)
Frederick, Md.: I arrived at Shady Grove at 7:30 a.m. to find a huge line of people waiting for the shuttle buses. However, I think Metro did a fair job of directing people to the correct line and the line moved fairly quickly. I would say I was on a bus in about 10 minutes. 355 traffic was pretty rough but got to Twinbrook and made it right onto a train and arrived at work (Metro Center) only about a half hour late. I only hope they have the stations reopened for the evening rush hour.
Robert Thomson: Metro says yes, it will.
Metro needs to stop spending money on PR posters: talking about how safe they are, and start spending it on some REAL safety upgrades and improved safety training and policies for workers. It's amazing they can't keep their workers safe with some plain old communication.
Robert Thomson: Statement just out from union chief Jackie Jeter:
"Once again, it is my sad duty to offer the condolences of ATU Local 689 members to the families of Jeffrey Garrard and Sung Oh, the two Automatic Train Control Technicians who lost their lives last night while working on the Metrorail. Both men were longtime employees of Metro."
Germantown, Md.: Dr. Gridlock: I was interested in your response to Kingstowne, Va. I agree that the deaths of maintenance workers should not be considered less tragic than passenger deaths, but in my view, the death of Metro employees and contractors is significantly more tragic. As a Red Line rider since 1992, I realize that some passenger deaths are true accidents and there is little Metro could have done to prevent them (for example, in the case of jumpers). But there is no excuse for the death of employees and contractors doing track maintenance! Why doesn't every single Metro employee -- much less the train and maintenance vehicle operators -- know when there might be people working or inspecting the tracks? Why is communication so ridiculously poor?
Robert Thomson: I think you're headed in the right direction on this, but many details of today's accident remain unclear.
Here's the latest from Metro:
"Garrard, 49, of Clarksburg, MD, a Metro employee since April 1990, and Oh, 68, of Montgomery County, MD, a Metro employee since December 1998, were installing new train control equipment in the track bed along an outbound section of track on the Red Line in the direction of Shady Grove when they were struck at about 1:45 a.m. near the Rockville Metrorail station.
"The Metro employees were struck by a high rail truck, a large truck that is equipped with special wheels that allow it to drive on the track when electricity that usually powers trains is taken down."
Rockville, Md.: We keep hearing the excuse from Metro that an insufficient budget prevents purchasing more trains, fixing escalators etc, and that we need another fare increase. But today's accident has nothing to do with the budget. On the contrary, the causes are rooted in poor management and lax safety standards.
I'm glad John Catoe is leaving. I can't believe he is proud of his tenure at Metro. I hope the new chief will insist that Metro operate to the same safety standards, including communication between workers, that we expect in every public transit system in the nation.
Robert Thomson: I agree that this is not a budget issue. This is a management issue. I haven't heard anyone at Metro saying otherwise today. For example, this is from Ashley Halsey III's interview with Metro board member Peter Benjamin this morning:
"There's clearly a major issue on the culture of safety at Metro that we have to do something about," Benjamin said. "It's very important that we focus on the culture of safety, as well as of the equipment and the system."
Ashburn, Va.: First, I would like to echo everyone's sentiment on what a horrible tragedy this is and how bad I feel for the families of the victimes.
What I don't understand is how commuters are expected to trust Metro to put our saftey first when it clearly can't take care of its employees as evidenced by the numerous instances over 2009. I wonder how many people will turn up to the public hearing tomorrow about service cuts and if this will impact that. Any word on if that is still going to happen tomorrow?
Along those lines, if we can't get saftey right, how in the world are we going to deal with the constant train malfunctions and unreliability which seems trivial in comparison?
Robert Thomson: Points well taken.
The Metro budget hearing still is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at Metro headquarters, 600 Fifth St. NW. (I think Metro has to hold this hearing. If not, it would have to advertise a rescheduled date a couple of weeks from now. There's very little time left to solve this year's financial problem.)
Baltimore, Md.: You're right -- I was looking at the National home page, which is the default for washingtonpost.com.
A suggestion: Perhaps a major local story such as this deserves at least a squib and a link to the local home page from the national one.
Robert Thomson: Yes, I agree. (This goes back to our earlier exchange in which I was trying to clarify the difference between the National and Local home pages on our Post Web site.)
There are a couple of references on the National page that are prominently placed but in small type that could easily be missed. There's a small type headline that says, "Two workers killed in Metro accident." And the story also is listed as the most viewed on the Web site.
Takoma Park: Am I the only person who thinks this is the wrong time for Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. to go? Are the recent accidents really his fault? This doesn't seem to be the best time to have someone brand new in the job.
Robert Thomson: I agree with you, but there are plenty of people commenting today who don't. I'll publish some of those comments, too. My own take is that Catoe didn't accomplish what he said from the beginning was his prime goal: Safety. But I don't hold him responsible for the actions of 10,000 employees or an aging system that needs more financial support. Also, this is a terrible time for the Metro board and senior staff to be distracted by the search for a new general manager.
Fire Catoe NOW: Don't wait until April 1. It can't get worse.
That said, it's time for a complete federal takeover of the system. One master is better then three, and the status quo is unacceptable. With federal management we could get the third and fourth tracks and updated equipment we need.
Make Congress responsible for the system that transports federal employees.
Robert Thomson: Here's one of those comments. I'll show you a couple more. (I disagree that we'd be better off with the federal government running our transit system. Plus, I think that's well beyond the proper role of the federal government. It should provide oversight, but not run the system.)
Red Line rider: As if we needed any further proof of John Catoe's abysmal leadership of Metro. I just hope we don't have to sacrifice any more riders or Metro employees before he finally leaves. I suggest getting back Dan Tangherlini -- unlike Catoe (and his chief apologist Jim Graham), he actually rides the Metro and has the smarts and managerial capability to fix the system.
Robert Thomson: Catoe rides Metro routinely. I've seen him out there and heard from other riders who have, too.
Aspen Hill, Md.: April can't come soon enough for me. Has WMATA started looking for Catoe's replacement? Any thoughts on whether they'd promote up (I hope not) vs. hiring from a better run transit system?
Robert Thomson: The Metro board hasn't even picked an interim general manager yet. The interim will probably last about half a year. The board will do a national-international search for a permanent replacement. I doubt that person will come from the current staff.
Washington, D.C.: With respect to the now-departed Metro official's decision to deny access to the safety oversight commission, it seems to me that one of two things happened: (1) either the Board of Directors didn't know that the official had denied access or (2) the Board knew and didn't understand the import of the denial or was toothless to do anything about it.
Either scenario speaks to a dysfunctional role by the Board of Directors. Are there any proposals to address the problems with Metro's own Board?
Robert Thomson: I think neither the board nor Catoe knew about the denial of access till they read about it in The Post. (Joe Stephens and Lena H. Sun) The board and Catoe were in agreement that they should have known, that it was a failure in the system that they did not, and that procedures should be put in place to make sure it doesn't happen again.
Anonymous: I guess I am confused. If the truck was backing up, should it not have been going slowly enough to stop before running over 2 people? Or at least slowly enough that 2 people could have gotten out of the way? Was it dark on the tracks or was the truck driver's visibility limited? I am wondering how this all happened.
Robert Thomson: These are all good questions. That's why the NTSB investigators are spending so much time out there and why we're probably in for a lengthy review of what really happened and what steps Metro must take to prevent another such incident.
Rockville, Md.: Thank you for opening a dialogue. I wish the press was aware of the subtleties of riding the Metro so when there are announcements of alternatives offered when such an incident occurs (such as shuttle buses, etc.) they are clear about the choices. I park at Rockville and would have done so this morning and taken a shuttle or the regular Metro bus to Twinbrook IF the press had indicated there was a shuttle from Rockville. They showed empty parking lots and reiterated over and over that the shuttle was available from Shady Grove to Twinbrook, never addressing whether or not the shuttle would service riders at Rockville. Just an annoyance to all but those who could have parked at Rockville and not clogged the lot(s) at Twinbrook.
Robert Thomson: Here's what my colleague, Mark Berman, posted on the Get There blog at 5:47 a.m.:
"For commuters, this will mean delays throughout the morning rush hour. While the investigation into the accident takes place, Red Line trains will operate between Glenmont and Twinbrook. But there will be no Red Line trains between Shady Grove and Rockville, though Metro is providing free shuttle bus service to help customers traveling between Shady Grove, Rockville and Twinbrook."
Gaithersburg, Md.: I bailed to MARC this morning. I used to ride that regularly and it gets me to essentially the same place.
When MARC had shutdowns, Metro would honor MARC tickets. Any word if the reverse is going to happen?
Robert Thomson: No, I don't believe that's going to happen, and in fact, if things go as predicted, there shouldn't be any need for the afternoon commute, since Metro service should be back to normal.
(MARC, VRE and Metro have a long-standing deal about Metro honoring suburban rail tickets when problems arise on the suburban lines.)
Ashburn, Va.: Not to take anything away from the issue at hand, the "low ridership" comments being made and lack of funding, how are instances like this going to make more people want to ride in order to fix the defecit? Likewise, we reduce the number of cars per train and level of service and we're going to have even more over crowding (which we all know leads everyone to be kicked off trains because the doors won't close) and it's only going to further deter people from riding. People aren't going to try again until the safety and consistency are up to par so they are guaranteed to not have to explain to their boss they are late again because of metro. I don't see how reducing service is going to help them financially in the long run but can easily see a slippery slope of continuously decreased ridership.
Robert Thomson: I haven't encountered anyone in Metro management who wants to cut service. They are in the business of providing service, they say. The budget officers do make a calculation about how many riders they are likely to lose, either by fare increases or service cuts. They have to incorporate that into their budget projections.
Metro ridership has declined over the past year -- in fact, that's the prime reason for our current budget crisis -- but Metro attributes that largely to the economy. Yes, some people stopped riding because they hated the delays or were concerned about safety, but the primary reason they stopped riding was because they didn't have jobs to ride to. (That's consistent with what's happening to other big transit systems.)
But to address your statement: Yes, both the board members and the staff members do get the slippery slope idea.
Robert Thomson: Travelers, thanks for the good discussion today about an important issue. I'll sign off now, but watch the Get There blog for further postings about what's going on with Metro service today, plus any updates we can offer about the investigation. Write to me any time at email@example.com.
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