A NEW report that is scathing in its criticism of Metro’s safety procedures was called an “important wake-up call” by a top federal transit official. The sad truth, however, is that the alarm about the system’s failings has been sounded in the past — quite loudly and quite frequently. So the central question that emerges from this latest report is: What will it take to get past talking about the transit system’s problems to actually fixing them?
The 116-page report released Wednesday by the Federal Transit Administration catalogued the “organizational deficiencies and operational concerns” that limit Metro’s ability to recognize and resolve safety problems. From emergency management to training protocols to maintenance backlogs, the system was found wanting. Even as management was credited with formulating safety policies and procedures in the aftermath of the fatal 2009 Red Line crash near Fort Totten, it was faulted for not following through with implementation.
Most damning was the description of the system’s operations control center: understaffed, chaotic, distracted. It’s particularly scary that during a week in which control center workers knew there were federal inspectors present, rules were flouted routinely — like the one barring cellphone use on the job. Imagine what goes on at this critical nerve center when no one is watching.
The FTA issued a “safety directive” to Metro officials, outlining the specific steps that need to be taken to address the problems highlighted in the report. Metro officials said they welcome the opportunity to make the system safer — again, something we have heard before. So how to ensure reform? Federal officials can withhold funds if there is noncompliance, but that would create something of a bind: Denying monies won’t help hire more workers for the control center or clear up the maintenance backlog.
Federal officials can be more assertive in using the bully pulpit to force change. FTA officials, for example, said they will meet monthly with Metro officials to check on progress; in our view, those meetings — save for discussions about sensitive security or personnel matters — should be public. There also needs to be a reassessment of the Tri-State Oversight Committee that was set up to oversee safety and security of the rail system. What exactly have its members been doing?
The need for strong leadership, committed to and capable of bringing a new culture to Metro, is clear. So it’s troubling that the search for a permanent general manager — nine months after Richard Sarles announced his retirement and five months since he left office — appears to be stalled. That Metro’s board of directors has been unable to find a general manager, or even agree on what’s needed, suggests that perhaps change needs to begin there, as well.