Friday, March 12, 2010

“Withering” Gunn report offers Metrorail turnaround guidelines

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In a report characterized by Washington Area Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Board Chairman Peter Benjamin as “withering,” former WMATA General Manager David Gunn  (pictured at left) says it will take three years for a new management team to turn around the agency’s accident-plagued Metrorail rail transit system—the nation’s second busiest—that serves the capital city.

 

david-gunn.jpgThe board hired Gunn, 72, an industry veteran who served as Metro general manager from 1991 to 1994, “to diagnose Metro’s ills and outline solutions” and “to provide an analysis on the current status of Metro, identify issues of concern, and recommend corrective actions to alleviate the identified concerns.”

 

Gunn’s report “was more than frank, it was withering," Benjamin said after hearing Gunn’s oral assessment at a board meeting. “He gave us a very clear, very honest, unvarnished-truth type of assessment, and told us we have a lot of issues we have to deal with, and we have to deal with them immediately.”

 

Gunn’s report comes as Metro faces an unprecedented number of safety investigations into deadly accidents (such as last year’s Red Line wreck, pictured, that killed nine, attributed to a failure of the automatic train control system); instability and vacancies in its senior management; and growing deficits in its operating and capital budgets, including a projected $190 million gap in its $1.4 billion operating budget for the fiscal year that begins in July.

 

A summary of the report released March 11 by WMATA said Gunn urges speedy recruitment of a new general manager with a strong operating and technical background, along with the “hiring and retaining” of senior managers with solid engineering experience. He also urges the troubled agency to “level with the public regarding the seriousness of the problems facing Metro,” and he called for an end to a “shoot the messenger” culture that discourages employees from reporting safety problems.

 

The report followed by exactly one week Federal Transit Administrator Peter M. Rogoff’s call for a “top to bottom” change in the way Metro handles safety issues. Reporting the findings of a safety audit prepared for Congress, Rogoff called Metro’s Safety Department “dysfunctional and ineffective.”

 

wmata-wreck.jpg“Mr. Gunn’s recommendations will help the board move forward in working with Interim General Manager Richard Sarles and it will help us select the next permanent general manager to head the transit agency,” said Board Chairman Benjamin. Sarles will arrive on March 29.

 

According to the summary, Gunn’s recommendations include these:

 

“Create a workplace where safety is openly discussed, problems are reported and solved, and all employees, supervisors, and managers know they can ask for help without fear. Provide all employees with the training and knowledge required to be safe and ensure the system is safe;

 

“Avoid service cuts to Metrorail; recognize cost recovery of 80% on rail and 35% on bus. Manage rail fare increases realistically to minimize ridership losses. Allocate financial resources based on the system’s operating and capital needs. Educate the public about financial realities: this trend cannot continue.

 

“Increase direct reports to the general manager for better control and strengthen senior management. Merge engineering and maintenance functions around systems (examples: signals, power, track).

 

“Create an organization with clear responsibility centers. Develop with key managers realistic, quantifiable goals tied to capital and operating budgets and hold managers accountable. Link personnel allocations more closely to the budget, goals, and objectives.

 

“Monitor monthly reports to assure goals are being met (examples: miles of track, ties, fasteners, joints, and turnouts replaced).

 

“Recruit a permanent general manager with a strong operating and technical background; the quality of the next general manager will significantly affect the ability to hire competent senior managers. Recruit experienced senior managers with engineering experience to fill many currently open positions. Hire and train qualified staff to address the maintenance backlog.

 

“Overcome the negative impact of reductions in force and early retirements.  Stop using hiring freezes to control the budget. Introduce a new reporting regimen so that quantifiable goals are tied to the capital and operating budgets. Prioritize capital and operating budgets by asset class (ex: bus procurement, rail replacement, ties, etc.)

 

“Accelerate track and car maintenance, cleaning, and replacement. Clean tunnels and stations, necessary for equipment reliability and safety. Generally increase maintenance programs.”