Richard Sarles, general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority in Washington, D.C.

WMATA's New Boss Promises Safety Overhaul

General Manager Richard Sarles told Congress on Wednesday that the safety department of the transit system serving the nation's capital will be strengthened and his agency's safety culture will improve. NTSB will meet July 27 to consider the final report on the most serious of four WMATA accidents it is investigating: the June 22, 2009, collision of two trains.

Outlining a 10-point plan Wednesday before a U.S. Senate appropriations subcommittee, Richard Sarles, the new general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority – the transit agency serving the nation's capital and the surrounding area – told lawmakers that the scathing Federal Transit Administration report released in March 2010 about WMATA’s safety culture had been helpful in mapping improvements. Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff described the WMATA safety culture at that time as "dysfunctional and ineffective," citing train collisions, maintenance workers killed when struck by a rail-mounted maintenance vehicle, and unfilled vacancies among the safety personnel.

"We are working on a number of fronts to strengthen our safety program, including hiring more people and getting them the training that they need," Sarles told the subcommittee, according to a transcript of his testimony posted on WMATA"s website. "We are developing an incident management system so that we can analyze trends and spot issues in advance. We are also improving protections for our track workers, by updating our procedures and our training program for those who work in and around the track area."

The 10 safety improvements he listed are:

1. Replace the oldest railcars in the fleet (Rohr 1000 Series railcars)
2. Develop a new real-time automatic train control redundancy system
3. Strengthen the expertise of the safety department
4. Complete the Roadway Worker Protection Program
5. Develop a training and certification program for bus and rail personnel
6. Strengthen employee knowledge of rules and rules compliance
7. Develop an accident and investigation database
8. Create a strong internal training tracking database
9. Fill vacancies in the Safety Department
10. Improve the agency's safety culture

Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board will meet July 27 to consider the final report on the most serious of four WMATA accidents NTSB is investigating: the June 22, 2009, collision of two trains between two Red Line stations.

Sarles said WMATA has hired a new chief safety officer, James Dougherty, who began his work for the agency on April 19, and has filled six of 12 new positions in the safety department, with the others expected to be filled within 60 days. He said WMATA is completing self-assessments on its internal controls and has contacted the U.S. Department of Transportation, the AFL-CIO, and the American Public Transportation Association "to seek their assistance in assembling a team of experts not only to review Metro's safety culture, but also to recommend specific measures to improve that culture and to provide assistance in implementing those recommendations. We intend to initiate this review by fall 2010," he said, "while recognizing that organizational culture change is a long-term process."

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