Encourage whistleblowers, Metro told

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 24, 2010; B4

Metrorail is safer than it was before the fatal June 2009 Red Line crash, but the transit agency can’t build an effective “culture of safety” unless it convinces employees that they can report problems and close calls without fearing discipline, a top federal safety official said Thursday.

Deborah A.P. Hersman, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, told a House subcommittee examining Metro’s response to the board’s investigative findings and safety recommendations that Metro leaders have successfully broadened their primary focus from keeping trains running to also keeping passengers safe.

Even so, Hersman said, “You have to bring employees to the table if you’re going to be successful . . . You need to set up a structure where employees feel comfortable reporting things.”

Hersman said NTSB investigators found that the operator of the train that was hit near the Fort Totten Station was operating his train in manual mode – against Metro policy at the time – because he’d been disciplined for overshooting a station platform in automatic mode. Although that operator didn’t cause the crash, Hersman said, his behavior showed a “punitive culture” that discouraged employees from reporting problems and the agency from figuring out how to fix them.

The NTSB’s report, issued in July, said the accident that killed nine people and injured dozens of others revealed a lax safety culture at all levels of Metro. The board found that a faulty track circuit kept Metro’s automatic train-control system from detecting the stopped train and making it send another train crashing into it from behind.

The NTSB also found that Metro’s oldest rail cars, about a quarter of its fleet, pose an “unacceptable risk to Metrorail users” because they offer little protection in a crash.

Richard Sarles, Metro’s interim general manager, told the panel that Metro will fulfill all NTSB recommendations. He said Metro has dedicated more than $30 million in capital spending over the next three years to carry out many of the safety improvements.

Sarles said Metro has begun replacing the problematic track-circuit modules; hired a new chief safety officer and filled 12 vacant safety department positions; hired an independent firm to analyze the automatic train-control system; and developed a plan to equip all rail cars with onboard event recorders.

Metro gave approval this summer for Kawasaki, the manufacturer of the next generation of rail cars, to begin building replacements for the older 1000 series cars. The first cars in the 7000 series are expected to arrive in 2013.

To improve the agency’s safety culture, Sarles said, Metro has begun working with the union to develop a way for employees to report “near-misses” without facing punishment and has strengthened its whistleblower policy to encourage reporting of safety problems.

Sarles acknowledged that “it’s going to take a long time” to build trust between Metro management and employees.

“It’s a start,” Sarles said of the changes Metro has made. “It’s not an end.”

But Anthony W. Garland, a local transit union official, told the Federal Workforce, Postal Service and District of Columbia subcommittee that Metro’s leadership must do more to build morale and “reconnect” with employees, many who “are always looking over their shoulder.”

“Over the years,” Garland said, “the solution to everything has been to increase discipline.”

Most of the questions at the two-hour session were posed by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who was alone on the dais for much of the time. Norton had requested that the panel convene the hearing.