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Metro safety officials not informed about system modifications

- The Washington Times - Monday, March 7, 2011

For as long as three years, engineering officials overseeing bus and rail vehicles at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority kept safety officials out of the loop when modifying equipment and systems — a potential violation of federal transportation rules flagged just months before the worst accident in the history of the transit agency.

The lack of information sharing meant "equipment, systems and facility improvements are being implemented throughout the Metro system without the required approval of safety" officials, according to an internal report.

The Dec. 29, 2008, report by WMATA's inspector general, obtained by The Washington Times last week through a nearly year-old open records request, highlighted a way of doing business that appeared to run afoul of Federal Transit Administration rules.

WMATA, which says it has since fixed the problem, has been beset by questions about its safety record in recent years after a string of serious accidents, including a June 2009 crash that killed nine people and injured dozens of others.

The inspector general's report investigated flaws in how officials carried out a procedure called the "Engineering Management Instruction" (EMI). The policy required written approvals for modifications to equipment and systems by certain Metro offices, including the System Safety and Risk Management Office.

"Safety was supposed to be notified of rail EMIs and [was] supposed to determine whether they were safety related or not," the report said. "There was also at one time a form for Safety to indicate that it had reviewed an EMI and to indicate its determination of whether it was safety related."

But that wasn't happening. Instead, safety officials weren't given a chance or even told about EMIs, according to the report.

One engineering official interviewed by the inspector general's investigators acknowledged that safety officials weren't reviewing the EMIs. The official, whose name was redacted in documents that WMATA provided to The Times, said, in his view, "Safety did not have the expertise or the staffing to properly conduct testing necessary to render an opinion that would add value to the review process."

But WMATA safety officials disagreed, telling investigators for the inspector general there were two safety officers "capable" of making the reviews.

The report said that sometime between 2005 and 2008, WMATA's Office of the Chief Engineer-Vehicles "stopped sending any EMIs to safety for approval and stopped notifying Safety about its EMIs." That engineering office is responsible for managing rail cars and buses.

By contrast, the report added, WMATA's separate Office of Engineering Support Services did send the required notifications to safety officials.

An unidentified safety officer told investigators that the Federal Transit Administration requires that rail cars and buses be certified by a transit authority's safety office before they are placed in operation.

In late November 2008, during the investigation, engineering officials began to send safety officials "a number of EMIs dating back to February 2008," according to the report.

Even then, however, there was no place on the forms for safety officials to indicate approval or disapproval, nor anywhere for safety officials to state whether they considered the "EMI" safety-related or not, the report said.

WMATA officials said they've since fixed the problem and that safety officials now are included in the review process.

Lisa Farbstein, a spokeswoman for WMATA, said since the inspector general's investigation, "The process and procedures were rewritten to specify that a system safety and environmental management signature is required for the approval of all engineering modification instructions.

"That new policy is being adhered to," she said. "With respect to reports from the [inspector general's office] generally, the general manager/chief executive officer utilizes the findings of those reports to improve business controls and accountability. This is a good example of how an IG report resulted in a procedure being rewritten."

A lack of safety oversight and WMATA's "safety culture" were among the contribution factors found by National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) officials after investigating the June 22, 2009, train collision at the Fort Totten Metro station.

WMATA officials have said they've since made dozens of safety improvements to comply with NTSB safety recommendations, including retirement of the older "1000 series" rail cars.

When he announced the retirement of the rail cars last summer, WMATA General Manager Richard Sarles cited what he called "the beginning of a safety culture shift from one that was reactive to one that is proactive in taking steps to solve and correct issues, so that issues don't become problems."

In December, The Times reported on a separate investigation by WMATA's inspector general, which also was obtained through a records request, that found three high-level engineering managers did not have the required certification from Maryland, Virginia or the District.

A spokeswoman for Metro said that the transit agency's policy is that only people with appropriate certification are allowed to sign or seal engineering documents and plans.

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