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Friday, March 05, 2010

FTA delivers scathing report on safety of D.C. Metro

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A federal investigation has identified pervasive flaws in rail safety at Metro and severe inadequacies in the agency responsible for oversight. Findings released March 4 call for widespread changes in how the nation's second-busiest subway system is supervised and managed, the Washington Post reports.

The sternly worded report, prepared by the Federal Transit Administration and presented to Washington area members of Congress, was the first in-depth look at Metro's safety program, FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff said. It revealed deep-rooted deficiencies at the transit agency and its independent oversight committee, highlighting vulnerabilities in the systems that are supposed to safeguard passengers and workers, he said.

The report excoriates Metro executives and the independent safety monitors at the Tri-State Oversight Committee, citing failures that include: Metro has no process to ensure that safety problems are identified in a timely fashion. Top leaders don't receive regular reports about safety issues. The safety office has been marginalized within the agency, lacks access to key data about subway operations and has been left out of decision-making.

As a result of those problems, the report says, the safety office has allowed known hazards to remain uncorrected for years.

The findings will make it increasingly difficult to placate members of Congress who have called for "direct federal intervention" if Metro does not make immediate safety improvements, although Rogoff flatly ruled out a takeover of Metro by the FTA. The findings will also put additional pressure on whoever ends up running Metro after John B. Catoe Jr. steps down as general manager April 2. On Thursday, the Metro board tapped former New Jersey Transit chief Richard Sarles to run the agency on an interim basis.

"Our audit makes clear that these two agencies are not doing enough to guarantee the safety of Metro passengers or Metro workers," Rogoff said, referring to Metro and its oversight body.

Rogoff said the safety performance of the Washington system was worse than others of similar size. He said the findings were a symptom of a much deeper problem, extending from executive leadership down to the most junior employee, and he urged the incoming Metro general manager to use the report as a "road map" for the "overarching safety problem."

Rogoff, a daily rider on the Orange and Green lines, said the agency needs "radical restructuring," including "knocking some heads and putting some people on the unemployment line."

The report is unusual because the FTA typically focuses on state oversight agencies, not individual transit systems. Federal law prohibits the FTA from having direct safety oversight of transit agencies.

Rogoff and members of Congress used the findings to reiterate their contention that the federal government needs to take over subway safety regulation nationwide. Legislation authorizing a takeover was introduced last month in the House and Senate.

A Metro spokeswoman said the agency was grateful to the FTA and "will begin work immediately to address the finding and recommendations."

The report asks Metro and its oversight committee to provide in-depth responses to the FTA by May 4.

Federal auditors found systematic failings in the way Metro identifies and prevents safety problems. Metro has no process or "single point of responsibility" to guarantee that hazards are spotted quickly. The agency has no database for long-term tracking of safety issues. When auditors asked for a list of the "top 10" safety concerns, they were told that Metro had no such list.

Top Metro executives also make critical decisions about operations without analyzing potential hazards, auditors found. Nor is there effective coordination among key operating departments -- such as rail operations, track maintenance and engineering -- to find and manage maintenance-related safety issues, Rogoff said.

The FTA report said Metro's safety office "is not 'plugged-in' to critical conversations, decision-making meetings and reporting systems that provide information on hazards and potential safety concerns throughout the agency." Critical documents, reports and decisions are not shared with the safety office, the report says.

Auditors also said that since 2007, when Catoe took over, four people have been in charge of safety. The department has been reorganized six times in five years, losing personnel and technical expertise. One-fourth of the 41 staff positions allocated to safety remain vacant. Safety, the report said, "has insufficient resources to keep up with a growing backlog of accident and incident investigations."

The report recommends that Metro and its independent inspectors rededicate themselves to safety, in part by establishing new methods for identifying and eliminating hazards. It says Metro and the inspectors should clearly identify the resources and expertise they require to make substantive improvements.

Auditors said the regional oversight committee has an unwieldy structure, with no full-time employees and committee membership spread among officials who report to the District, Maryland and Virginia. That renders decision-making cumbersome. In addition, committee members have not had direct access to top executives at Metro, limiting the committee's effectiveness.

The committee's charter has been strengthened, and Metro now requires transit agency executives to notify the board of directors before they deny a request from the committee.

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