Some Metro train operators are behaving in decidedly unsafe ways four years after the deadly Red Line crash at Fort Totten supposedly forced the transit system to embrace a new “safety culture” from top to bottom.
What to do? I agree with Bill Euille, who is the mayor of Alexandria and the longest- serving member of the Metro board. He said management should fire some repeat offenders to underline that it’s serious about preventing accidents.
“Maybe the first time they get a warning, the second time you show them out the door. That’s how you prove your commitment to safety, by getting rid of people who don’t want to be part of the program, plain and simple,” Euille said.
In the riskiest incidents, train operators drove through red signals five times in 2 1 / 2 months this spring. No accidents occurred, but running a red light is one of the worst things a rail operator could do.
In a more brazen infraction, it emerged recently that some train operators had disabled the emergency intercoms on rail cars that allow passengers to alert the cab of a heart attack, crime, fight or other mishap requiring urgent attention.
The operators applied tape, jammed pennies or used other means to hold down a “reset” button to cut off the intercoms. They did so because they were distracted and frustrated over receiving continuous false alerts over the intercoms owing to signal interference caused by new digital communication panels.
If you were looking for an ideal example of an “anti-safety culture,” it would be hard to beat the deliberate disabling of an emergency device.
“It is very troubling. There should be better communication regarding these defects so operators don’t feel the need to solve these issues themselves,” said James Benton, chair of the Tri-State Oversight Committee, which monitors Metro’s safety compliance.
Train operators aren’t the only ones at fault recently. The control center erred in two incidents in which Orange Line trains were routed onto Blue Line tracks.
Also, Metro management neglected to follow up on a separate problem with the emergency intercoms, first identified in 2009. Some don’t work when certain older rail cars are placed behind newer ones in a train.
So far, nobody’s been fired. The red signal violators received unpaid time off and underwent reinstruction.
Metro also placed stickers on operators’ consoles reminding them what red lights and similar signals meant — a step mocked by Euille.
“It’s foolish and silly to have to remind people with a sticker to say, ‘Stop when you see a red light.’ If we’ve got to that point, we probably have people operating our trains who shouldn’t be operating them in the first instance,” he said.
Metro hasn’t identified the operators who disabled the intercoms. It heard about the practice from other employees, who apparently didn’t name names.
The transit system has used firings to send a safety message in the past. Nine were terminated last year on the first offense for using a cellphone or other electronic device while operating a bus or maintenance vehicle.
Now, it’s only fair to acknowledge that Metro has unquestionably improved its safety practices in numerous ways since the outcry following the Fort Totten crash, which killed nine.
In the latest evidence of that, management and the union reached a significant accord to allow employees to anonymously report “close calls” that could have caused an accident. Metro is the first subway system in the country to adopt the system.
But the red signal violations and intercom jamming confirm predictions that it would take years to transform an institutional culture faulted in the past for emphasizing safety only “when convenient.”
Metro General Manager Richard Sarles put a positive spin on the revelation about the disabled intercoms. He said it showed employees felt comfortable informing management about a problem.
“In the old culture, that would not have happened. We would not have had the employees reporting it, because they feared retaliation,” Sarles said.
Still, he acknowledged there was a way to go.
“Is the safety culture where we want to be? Absolutely not. But we’ve made progress. The intention here is to continue to make progress,” Sarles said.
A few well-placed pink slips might speed things up.
I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.