WASHINGTON – Metrorail representatives said at a public hearing Tuesday that despite budget constraints they are making changes to prevent future collisions like the June Red Line accident that killed nine people.
The National Transportation Safety Board held its first day of a three-day hearing to investigate the accident, questioning the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority leadership on safety practices. Four of the nine ongoing Safety Board rail transit investigations involve the Washington Metrorail system.
“We know that transit, in spite of what we’re going through today, is one of the safest modes throughout the industry,” said Metrorail Acting Chief Safety Officer Michael Taborn, “but one death is one death too many.”
Taborn said the past few months have been “a learning process,” and “we are becoming better at identifying future problems we may be faced with.”
Five employees and eight passengers have died in Metrorail accidents since June 2009, and several other employees and passengers were injured in other non-fatal accidents during the same time period. The most recent incident was Feb. 12: A Red Line train automatically derailed near the Farragut North station to avoid colliding with another train, after passing through a red light.
The Safety Board is now investigating the February derailment; a Jan. 26 Rockville accident in which two track workers were struck and killed by a piece of equipment; a Nov. 29 Falls Church collision between two trains that injured three workers, and the fatal June collision that happened when a track circuit failed to alert a moving train that another train was stopped on the tracks ahead.
Whether a culture of safety is instilled from the top leadership down to the workers, or vice versa, was a frequent theme of the hearing. “I think the best way to change a culture is to work from the bottom up,” Metro Board Chairman Peter Benjamin said. “(Safety) has got to be an inherent part of the agency.”
But Assistant General Manager David Kubicek said a lack of funding impacts service, stretching safety resources too thin. “We would like to have more staffing, more funding,” Kubicek said, “it does stress us a little bit thinner than we would like to be stretched.”
The budget constraints will not impact employee safety training.
“I will not allow us to reduce our training budget,” said General Manager John B. Catoe Jr., adding that the agency will be forced to reduce future service without more funding.
One of the new ways Metrorail will identify problems is through safety audits conducted by outside contractors, said Kubicek. Outside audits were rare before June, Kubicek said, but other agencies can “help standardize our information and give us a different perspective.”
The agency charged with overseeing Metrorail, the Tri-State Oversight Committee, was blocked from conducting safety investigations after the June 22 accident until early December.
Another improvement Kubicek discussed is the purchase of new 7000-series railcars, which should begin replacing older 1000-series cars in about three years. The new cars will contain event recorders that can help investigators determine the cause of an accident. Currently, not all cars have event recorders.
The Safety Board first raised concerns with the crash-worthiness of 1000-series cars in 2004 after a Red Line accident near Woodley Park, recommending new cars be purchased sooner. A 1000-series car suffered the most damage in the June accident when it was crushed to about one-third its original length.
The agency, Kubicek said, has begun taking a long view toward standardizing equipment, simplifying staff training and improving reliability, “instead of buying 100 cars here, 100 cars there.” Other updates for maintenance facilities are planned, he said, because right now workers are “trying to conduct maintenance on a very tight timeline.”
Taborn told the Safety Board that the agency is working to implement the recommendations of the Tri-State Oversight Committee.
“We work on a continuous basis … (to) ensure that the safety of our employees and our patrons is number one.”
Metrorail recently conducted its own leadership overhaul — Catoe replaced two top officers in December after criticism from Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Baltimore, and then announced his own resignation in January, effective in April. To increase revenue and make up for declining ridership, passengers will shoulder a 10-cent fare increase from March through June.
Hearings continue through Thursday, with members of the Tri-State Oversight Committee and various federal agencies testifying.