- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 24, 2008

National Transportation Safety Board investigators yesterday said three Metro employee fatalities in 2006 were caused in part by disregarding safety protocols to keep trains on schedule.

“The train operations seemed to be more important,” said investigator Ruben Payan during a hearing before the board on the incidents. “Additional safety requirements were sometimes discouraged because it would slow down trains.”

The agency found that Metro — with the country’s second largest subway system after New York City — did not have clear policies governing the safety responsibilities of employees working in tunnels or on tracks prior to the accidents in May and November 2006 that killed track workers.

It also found that before the first accident, Metro did not require speed limits for trains approaching or traveling through work zones.

The Washington Times reported yesterday that the operator of a Yellow Line train in the November 2006 crash reported her radio was not working beforehand and that she did not have an agency issued handset to communicate with operations personnel.

The board did not find that to be a factor in the crash, which killed Leslie Cherry, 52, and Matthew Brooks, 36, as they inspected a track near the Eisenhower Avenue station, in Alexandria.

The board said the operator, Lynette Harris, did not follow procedure for approaching the workers and did not ensure that they were aware the train was coming.

In the May crash, Jong Wong Lee, 49, was struck by a Red Line train just outside the Dupont Circle station, in Northwest.

The board said Mr. Lee either did not know the train was coming or did not know the limits of the clear area in the work zone. Also because the train was going 40 mph, the operator had limited time to spot him.

Metro has since imposed a 35 mph speed limit on trains approaching work zones and a 10 mph limit once workers have been spotted. It also has increased the frequency and detail of announcements to train operators on the whereabouts of track workers, among other procedural changes.

Metro officials have maintained that the system is safe but have been on an aggressive push to improve safety since General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. took the position last year.

“Metro’s concern first is safety,” said Deputy General Manager Gerald Francis. “That’s always been and will be our No. 1 priority. Everything else comes after that.”

Betty Waldron, the widow of former Metro employee Michael Waldron, who was killed working on a track in October 2005, said that she was pleased that Metro had made changes to safety protocol.

“When my husband was hit, that train was recorded going 48.5 miles per hour,” a teary-eyed Mrs. Waldron said. “The fact that it’s now down to 35 and then 10 if the track workers are on the track — it’ll save lives, I’m sure.”

Mr. Catoe said in the past year he has had to juggle several issues within the 31-year-old system — most recently a fare increase instituted this month — while trying to maintain safe, timely service.

In September, Mr. Catoe told The Times that he had made several procedural and personnel changes after a series of accidents and safety-related service interruptions, which included a train derailment last January that injured 20 riders.

He also said he had suspended a “very high level” manager for violating track procedures and started requiring employees to carry cards that outline hand signals to be used in tunnels.

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