How Fast Can WMATA Change?

NTSB's report about the June 2009 fatal collision of two trains on the Washington, D.C., Metro system's Red Line blames a bad control circuit but also indicts a safety program that is being overhauled.

Now that the National Transportation Safety Board has adopted its report about the June 2009 collision of two Red Line trains on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority system in the nation's capital, the top priority is completing hundreds of safety improvements, the agency's interim general manager, Richard Sarles, said Tuesday.

The report adopted earlier in the day blames a bad control circuit but also is critical of what was a weak safety program at the Metro transit agency, which is engaged in a major safety overhaul.

"On behalf of all Metro employees, I want to first express my condolences to the families of those who lost loved ones and those who were injured in the tragic accident on June 22, 2009. I believe that the greatest honor that we can pay them and also our customers who rely on us every day is to work to prevent such an incident from ever happening and to become the safest railroad possible," Sarles said in a statement posted on the Metro website.

"Today at Metro there is no higher value or priority than safety. We have taken dozens of actions just in the last year, to improve safety for our customers and employees. And I pledged that we will carefully consider the comments, findings and recommendations that come forth from the National Transportation Safety Board today and continue to work cooperatively with the NTSB, just as we have in advance of today's meeting. To date, working with the NTSB, the Federal Transit Administration and the Tri-State Oversight Committee, Metro has closed 202 of 256 safety action plans or followed through on recommendations that we have received from them. We are in the midst of making major safety improvements to equipment and infrastructure and basic protocols, process, and procedures.

"With respect to our train control system, we continue to operate in manual mode while a real-time track circuit monitoring system is being developed. We've instituted twice daily evaluation of track circuits. And we've established test procedures to identify track circuits susceptible to parasitic oscillation, which is being reviewed by the NTSB."

"Among the equipment improvements, we are issuing a contract to purchase new rail cars to replace the 1000 rail car series, the oldest in our fleet. In the meantime, rollback protection is being installed on the entire fleet and the 1000 series will be complete at the end of this month. Our rail infrastructure is undergoing major upgrades. Over the next six years, the Red, Orange and Blue rail lines will be rehabilitated as part of projects valuing more than $600 million.

"While all of these improvements are important, a truly successful, effective and enduring safety program is one that prevents incidents from occurring by identifying risks in advance. We are building the foundation of a culture of prevention at Metro. We are developing a Safety Management System to track, identify and monitor progress to address safety concerns. We've rebuilt and expanded our Safety Department. To encourage involvement by our employees, who are our eyes and ears to prevention, we have reinforced our whistleblower policy, established a safety hotline to anonymously report safety concerns, and have initiated discussions with Local 689 to establish procedures to encourage reporting of near misses without punitive consequences.

"We have also revised our safety rule book, overhauled our Roadway Worker Protection Program, and expanded safety training throughout the agency. It is this commitment that we will take with us as we work cooperatively with the NTSB on its final recommendations."

Sarles announced July 10 that Metro had received pre-award Federal Transit Administration authority for more than $220 million in projects -- needed safety upgrades or "state of good repair needs," according to WMATA. Of that amount, $10.3 million will be spent to implement NTSB recommendations. The 2009 crash caused nine deaths and 52 injuries, and NTSB's post-accident testing indicated Metro's automatic train protection system was not detecting the stopped train as it should have.

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