- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The stinging words “anemic safety culture” rang loud and clear at the National Transportation Safety Board’s report on the investigation of last summer’s crash on the D.C. Metro system that killed nine people.

In presenting its final report on the crash, the board made a sweeping indictment of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), which carries about 750,000 passengers daily in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

In her opening statement, board Chairman Deborah Hersman said listeners “are going to hear a lot about WMATA’s anemic safety culture today,” adding that a lack of preventive measures meant “the only question was when would Metro have another accident — and of what magnitude.”

Metro’s worst nightmare happened June 22, 2009, when Red Line train 212 struck Red Line train 214 near the Fort Totten station in the city’s Northeast quadrant, causing the rear car of train 214 to telescope about 63 feet into the lead car of train 212, killing eight passengers and the operator of the speeding train.

The incident shocked the city and raised serious questions about the system’s safety protocols. The report concluded, as expected, that faulty signal models caused the track to tell the operator of train 212 that the track was vacant when it wasn’t.

But the NTSB ranged far and wide Tuesday in its criticisms during the hearing and in its report. It cited, among other reasons, thousands of alarm signals regularly ignored by employees and a lack of clear oversight of the Metrorail system because of the overlapping jurisdictions it serves.

Board members also spent a chunk of the day addressing their concerns that employees might be punished for reporting safety problems, a clear mark of the “ineffective safety culture,” as the report called it.

NTSB board member Earl Weener, along with other panelists, agreed with Ms. Hersman’s frustration.

“It seems that when it comes to safety recommendations, the organization was a bit like a sieve,” he said.

Board members accused managers of taking a “reactive” rather than “proactive” approach on safety concerns. Even then, reactiveness didn’t always take place, members asserted. As of February, WMATA had 49 corrective-action plans pending.

“There was an expectation and overreliance on the safety of the system, and they weren’t progressive. They were complacent,” Ms. Hersman said, calling the transit agency “tone-deaf” and stating bluntly that WMATA would have to pay heed to its recommendations.

“I think that our frustration is that if they don’t listen this time, I’m not really sure what else can be done at this point,” she said.

In the past 30 years, the agency has had 13 onboard, crash-related fatalities, nine of which happened in last year’s Red Line crash. But, as the NTSB highlighted, Metro has had a series of serious safety breaches even after that crash.

Three workers were hurt in November when a train hit a stationary train at a Metro park. In December, a team of inspectors was nearly hit by a train that Metro officials say was traveling too fast. In January, two veteran workers were struck and killed by a maintenance truck on a track closed to regular service.

NTSB board members cited a 2005 incident at the Rosslyn station on the Orange Line as a case study of WMATA’s seeming inability to learn from its mistakes.

Story Continues →