Metro simply has to get serious about safety

Two Red Line Metrorail trains crashed June 22, 2009 between the Fort Totten and Takoma Park stations, killing nine, including one train operator.
Thursday, July 29, 2010

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.

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