Friday, March 05, 2010

WMATA Safety Department: “Dysfunctional and ineffective”

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Federal Transit Administrator Peter M. Rogoff called Thursday for “a top-to-bottom change in the safety culture and focus on safety at Washington Metro.” Discussing the findings of a WMATA and Tri-State TOC safety audit prepared by FTA for Congress, he called Metro’s Safety Department “dysfunctional and ineffective.”


Acknowledging that “FTA is currently prohibited by law from having direct safety oversight of Washington Metro and similar agencies across America,” Rogoff said that “at the direct of request of Senator [Barbara] Mikulski (D-Md.) and [DOT] Secretary Ray LaHood, and with the encouragement of WMATA’s interim Chief Safety Officer, this audit, for the first time, took a hard look at WMATA’s own safety program.” 

The audit resulted in 21 findings and recommendations. While directed specifically at WMATA, they could also affect other agencies if embodied in legislation.

“The Metrorail crash last summer certainly accelerated our efforts within the Obama Administration to develop and transmit our transit safety reform bill,” said Rogoff. “However, we have also been focused on accidents and safety lapses at the Chicago Transit Authority, the MUNI system in San Francisco, the “T” in Boston, and elsewhere. While we believe the situation at Washington Metro is particularly troubling, some of the deficiencies and vulnerabilities that we identified in our audit of Metro and the TOC are similar to problems that exist at transit agencies and State Safety Organizations across America. Thatis precisely why we need Congress to move forward with our transit safety reform bill now. The U.S. Department of Transportation cannot move forward to address these problems in any meaningful way while we are still prohibited in law from issuing safety regulations or conducting direct safety oversight.”


Rogoff emphasized that “despite Metro’s safety challenges, every Washington area commuter is far safer traveling on Metro than they are traveling on our highways. Anyone who decides to drive to work instead of taking Metro is immediately putting themselves at much greater risk of accident or injury. The Metro rail system has experienced 13 on-board crash-related fatalities during its 33-year history. While every one of the fatalities has been a tragedy, the fact is that automobile accidents on the roads of the Washington area claim the same number of fatalities every two weeks. Nationwide, a person is 107 times more likely to die and 57 times more likely to be injured as a motor vehicle passenger than as a rail transit passenger. So, does Washington Metro and the TOC need to make changes to improve safety? Absolutely! Should Metro’s safety challenges prompt riders to drive their cars instead? Absolutely not!”

“Regarding WMATA,” he said, “we believe there are serious organizational failures that must be addressed immediately. For example, our audit found thatthere is no internal process for communicating safety-related information across all WMATA departments. Worse still, there is no internal process for the Chief Safety Officer to communicate safety priorities to the General Manager. We are also deeply troubled by the fact that WMATA’s safety department does not routinely have access to operating and maintenance information so that it could analyze the information for safety implications.”

“For example,” said Rogoff, “FTA found evidence that WMATA’s Safety Department 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. Key documents, reports, and decisions are not consistently shared with the Safety Department. In addition, the Safety Department does not receive and review available monthly reports from the Rail Operation, Quality, or Maintenance departments. On numerous occasions during the audit interviews, Safety Department representatives indicated that they were learning for the first time that information of a safety nature was being documented by operating departments … we are also concerned about the resources dedicated for the Safety Department, the lack of stability within the Safety Department, and the scant attention it has gotten from senior management. Three illustrative observations are worth sharing with you:

(1) “At the time of our audit, there was a 25% vacancy rate within the Safety Department. 

(2) “The Safety Department itself has been reorganized six times since 2005. 

(3) “Since 2007, there have been four different individuals in charge of safety.”

On worker safety, Rogoff said: ”We found that WMATA’s procedural protections for right-of-way workers, implemented after the 2006 Dupont Circle accident, were not developed in consultation with TOC or even evaluated for its impact on safety. In addition, while WMATA representatives stated that employees were provided training on this directive, during our interviews we found that employees were simply provided the directive and asked to sign a form stating that they understood the rule.

“And, given the communication problems within Metro, it is troubling that while Metro intends to revise this rule, in light of the recent tracker worker deaths, the Safety Department has not been asked to conduct an analysis of the revisions. Also, supervisors and operators told FTA that communications from right-of-way workers do not specify their exact location on the alignment. Specifically, operators stated that in some cases they do not know if workers are on the alignment until they have visual contact, and, when this occurs, especially in ‘blind spots,’ operators have limited ability to slow the train.”

Urging Congress top address these and other concerns, Rogoff described the administration's approach:

“First, our legislative proposal would provide FTA direct oversight authority over individual transit systems. The bill would grant us the ability to issue regulations and enforce them. So our legislative proposal would allow FTA to set minimum, national standards regarding such issues as track worker protection, crashworthiness, on-board event recorders, or the institution of safety management systems to ensure critical safety issues receive the attention they deserve.

“Under our legislative proposal, the FTA would be empowered with the same tools that agencies like the FAA have to compel the compliance of regulated parties. While State Safety Oversight (SSO) agencies would have the opportunity to enforce Federal regulations on the FTA’s behalf, they would only be allowed to do so if they had the staff strength, expertise, and legislative authority to compel compliance by the transit providers.

“Importantly, our legislative proposal would provide Federal funds to TOCs for hiring, training, inspections, and other safety-related activities. Rather than having TOCs that are understaffed and undertrained, the FTA would provide resources to ensure that they are up to the task.

“Most importantly, our legislative proposal is built around the goal of getting every rail transit provider, including Metro, to embrace state-of-the-art Safety Management Systems (SMS). An effective SMS is one where every employee, from the lowest to the highest rungs of the operation, are keeping their eyes and ears on safety concerns.”


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