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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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