The group responsible for monitoring the safety of Metrorail has gained confidence in the transit authority’s approach to safety, according to a quarterly report from the head of the Tri-State Oversight Committee.
Matt Bassett, chairman of the TOC, told Metro’s board of directors at a meeting Thursday that the group’s relationship with Metro “has improved dramatically” and that he doesn’t have “very serious” concerns about Metro’s safety operations.
In its final report on the 2009 Red Line crash that killed nine people, the National Transportation Safety Board slammed Metro for a negligent safety attitude and criticized the TOC as weak and ineffective. Metro had even barred TOC safety monitors from its tracks.
However, several Metro board members said they remain concerned about implementing a new automatic train-control system. The NTSB has said the technical cause of the crash was a failure of that system, causing one train to slam full speed into another. Trains have been operated in manual mode ever since.
Mort Downey, a Metro board member, said he wants the TOC to ensure that Metro follows through on a safe replacement and that the TOC should be “comfortable” with a new system.
Bassett cautioned that the TOC lacks the technical capabilities to perform such an analysis on a system but said that it plans to oversee the upgrade process and would use its contract engineers to help if needed.
“The issues today are troubleshooting rather than system-wide concerns,” Bassett said.
He described an incident in which his group showed up with 48 hours’ notice to inspect safety records at Metro’s Alexandria rail yard. He said Metro employees were helpful in providing the necessary documents and, if they didn’t have them, “pointed us in the direction of where to get them” at other divisions.
It is a remarkably different response than in years past.
Metro General Manager Richard Sarles called it a “sea change” in the relationship.
“You look back two years ago, and the complaint was we wouldn’t share information and we wouldn’t let them on the railroad,” he said. Now the authority “welcomes the oversight,” Sarles said.
“We need to know the bad things to correct them,” he said. “The TOC is fresh eyes. . . . It is finding things that can be corrected and improved.”
The TOC still lacks authority to enforce safety recommendations, but there is a push on Capitol Hill to pass legislation that would create federal oversight for subway systems.
At Thursday’s meeting, several other items came before the board:
●Chairman Cathy Hudgins praised Sarles on behalf of the board. Sarles become interim head in March 2010 but was named to the permanent job in January 2011. She credited Sarles with “stabilizing the organization, improving safety and advancing its capital program.”
Sarles, who received a three-year contract for an annual salary of $350,000 when he joined Metro, was offered a performance bonus but turned it down, Hudgins said.
“I enjoy what I’m doing,” Sarles said after the meeting. He would not disclose the amount of the proposed bonus, noting the “recognition is what’s important to me.”
Sarles said that in coming weeks, he plans to evaluate his executive leadership team and decide whether they’re eligible for bonuses.
●The board also agreed to hire an independent consultant to look at Metro development deals. The review comes after questions about an unsuccessful Florida Avenue NW project involving D.C. Council member Jim Graham, who was a longtime Metro board member. The Washington Post has written several editorials about the venture. Metro officials said they do not know how much the consultant will cost.