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D.C. transit agency often slow to act on safety recommendations

Federal investigators determined that a 2004 Metrorail crash at Woodley Park might have killed 80 people if the trains had been full. Metro has not completed action on all the safety recommendations that resulted from the investigation of that accident.
Federal investigators determined that a 2004 Metrorail crash at Woodley Park might have killed 80 people if the trains had been full. Metro has not completed action on all the safety recommendations that resulted from the investigation of that accident. (Gereald Martineau/twp)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 26, 2009

After a Metro train unexpectedly rolled backward, gained speed and rammed another train in Woodley Park, investigators identified dozens of safety deficiencies related to the 2004 crash.

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Five years after that collision injured 20 people, records show that 11 safety recommendations have not been carried out. Among those pending: upgrading electronics on all Metro trains to prevent them from rolling back and adding door handles for emergency workers trying to enter a rail car quickly.

Those recommendations, known as corrective action plans, represent just a fraction of the improvements that have languished under a system operated by Metro managers and independent monitors from the Tri-State Oversight Committee. A Washington Post analysis of committee data shows that, as of Nov. 20, more than 100 safety corrections recommended after accidents, other incidents and audits were listed as not completed.

After The Post requested access to the data under open records laws, Metro officials said they became "aggressive" and, by last week, had completed 36 outstanding recommendations. The unusually fast reaction coincides with a sweeping management shake-up and a "declaration of war" on safety problems.

"There is no excuse," Metro's acting safety chief, Michael Taborn, said of the backlog. "Some heads were knocked."

The oversight committee's manual lays out a timetable under which most safety deficiencies should be identified and corrected within 60 days. But under federal law, the committee has no authority to force Metro to share records and no power to compel the transit agency to act.

"What you're finding, when you look behind the curtain, is that there's been a lot of neglect to safety priorities coming out of accidents," said Kitty Higgins, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board. "It really is disheartening."

As recently as July 7, the oversight committee and Metro set a goal of closing out five corrective actions a month, minutes from committee meetings show. Taborn said Metro will move faster in the future. "We're going to do our concerted best to close them out as quickly and sufficiently as we possibly can," he said.

Some fixes will take considerable time and money. Adding protection against rolling back to all rail cars is expected to cost about $3 million and take years. External emergency door handles will cost about $5 million, records show.

Metro's renewed commitment comes after an investigative series in The Post during the past six months revealed lapses in safety and oversight at the transit agency. In recent weeks, the Obama administration has announced a plan to take over safety regulation of subway systems nationwide, and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) has demanded broad changes at Metro.

The transit agency recently announced a major reorganization, under which the agency's second-highest executive and at least three other top managers are to leave or be reassigned.

Other data released to The Post this month shows that Metro has yet to complete investigations into more than 40 accidents and other safety-related incidents, including eight derailments, some dating to April 2006. When the investigations are complete, they will generate additional recommendations.


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