In-depth Metro audit finds numerous safety lapses

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 13, 2010; 10:34 PM

A comprehensive audit of Metro safety released this week found serious deficiencies in identifying and reporting hazards, acute training shortfalls, track worker safety violations and a lack of security upgrades needed to address the heightened threat of terrorist attacks.

The scores of "areas of concern" identified in the latest triennial audit by the Tri-State Oversight Committee, which oversees safety at Metro, indicate that much work lies ahead, despite the transit agency's stepped-up safety campaign.

"They've made significant progress in addressing some of these things, but that doesn't mean it's fixed," said Matt Bassett, chairman of the TOC. He said the most critical problem areas identified in the audit - including track worker protection, deferred escalator and elevator maintenance and a backlog of safety improvements - are the same areas in which Metro has devoted significant new resources in recent months.

The nearly 300-page TOC audit, posted late Tuesday on the oversight committee's Web site, represents a more comprehensive probe of Metro's adherence to safety requirements than the 2007 audit, largely because the TOC has gained more full-time personnel and financial resources to pay for technical expertise in the past year, Bassett said. "It drills down to an additional level of detail and scrutiny and provides a more nuanced picture of the agency's rail safety efforts," he said.

The TOC has been beefed up this year in response to criticism from the Federal Transit Administration, which described the TOC as a toothless organization that lacks the ability to adequately carry out its mission of overseeing safety at Metro.

Metro has 45 days to respond to the audit and come up with plans for how to address the safety findings.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverley Swaim-Staley said that the TOC has been frustrated with slow Metro responses to its audits in the past but that interim General Manager Richard Sarles has been "much more aggressive" in recent months in correcting safety problems.

Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said that 61 "corrective action plans" have been closed since Jan. 1, and a total of 223 since 2004.

"We do plan to respond to each of the findings with a corrective action plan or the justification of why no additional action plan is needed, by Nov. 22," Farbstein said.

Among the most serious findings in the audit were several safety rule violations by Metro personnel working on or near the tracks.

In one case, it said, a track inspector gave a "proceed" hand signal before clearing the right of way. "The inspector was fouling the track at the time of the proceed hand signal," it said. It also found that safety briefings were not conducted at the start of work, as well as inadequate procedures for ensuring that tracks were safe for returning to service.

Since 2005, seven Metro employees have died in accidents on the tracks that "were generally considered preventable," the audit said. "Given all of the commendable efforts that WMATA has undertaken to improve ROW [right of way] safety, it is important to note that the new program has not yet been implemented."

It found that the safety training program for track workers had "acute problems, including omission of critical rules and procedures." In addition, it said Metro workers were not receiving refresher training on track safety every three years, as required by Metro policy.

Other troublesome findings included a lack of updates to Metro security designs and equipment "necessary in a post-9/11 environment," the audit said.

Specifically, the audit said that the contractor for the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project had not updated design criteria to include "intrusion" and weapons of mass destruction detection, as well as a smart-video system and the assessment of threats.

Reflecting a common source of rider frustration, the audit also found a poor level of compliance for elevator and escalator preventive maintenance, which were 64 percent and 56 percent, respectively, in April.

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