Why the Catoe Watch continues

Today the WMATA Board voted to extend General Manager John Catoe's contract. As many readers of this site know, I have been advocating for change within Metro, and wrote a petition calling on the WMATA Board to replace Catoe. As the "Catoe Watch" box on this site declares, it's been 94 days since the fatal crash on the Red Line.

I've written many posts here about Metro and the safety problems that exist within the organization. I'm currently working on a completely new series of posts that will be appearing soon elsewhere in the DC blogosphere. I've poured through NTSB accident reports and safety letters, and read every news article about every fatal incident that's ever happened at Metrorail. Let me be clear in saying that I don't believe now, or have ever believed that John Catoe was personally responsible for the June 22 crash.

The point of the Catoe Watch, and the petition, is to highlight long-standing organizational problems at Metro. The transit system is facing all sorts of challenges, including significant financial strains. It would be hard for WMATA to search for a new manager in the midst of all of this. However, I still believe that's exactly what needs to happen. Metro needs reform, and has needed it for a long time. We'll never see that kind of reform with John Catoe, or with this Board. As some media accounts have reported, some on the Board were hesitant to fire Catoe because they were the ones who had hired him! These sorts of political considerations, while the reality, are also the problem.

Organizational, institutional problems cannot be solved without organizational and institutional reform. Yes, Metro has to solve funding problems. Yes, Metro has to solve infrastructure and safety problems. It's a tall order. We really believe that Catoe is the best person in the entire country to do it? Expand the search. Find someone who is good with reforming organizations, even if they have little or no experience with transit. We need someone who can revamp Metro's entire culture within and it's image to the public.

It's a difficult task. It's not impossible. The longer we maintain the status quo, the harder things will be to fix. We've got at least another three years with Catoe. Three more years of the status quo. I'm keeping the Catoe Watch up to remind people that we didn't arrive at the status quo by chance. The Metro Board and those who support Catoe chose this path. If and when things do not improve, and if and when there are more incidents or accidents, I hope we all remember that.


  1. you'd need to replace metro's board of directors to bring about the "organizational and institutional reform" that you want. Replacing the GM wouldn't bring about the change that you want even if there were more qualified candidates out there, which there aren't. A metro GM should be focusing on operational matters anyway, so no we should absolutely not "Find someone who is good with reforming organizations, even if they have little or no experience with transit." besides, how is a reformer supposed to know how a mass transit agency should run if that reformer has no experience working in mass transit?

  2. I agree with the first part, but it's near impossible to easily change the board. Perhaps the FBI will help us and at least we'll get a new DC member and Board Chair, but we'll see.

    As far as the second part, I'm not so sure. The general manager of the organization shouldn't really be focused on the nitty-gritty of the rail and bus systems. He needs to manage the entire organization, from the political aspects (funding) to communications, to labor relations and also rail and bus operations. A GM who has experience with managing complex organizations would create an organizational structure within Metro that would allow the people with the proper expertise to manage their departments.

    Just because Catoe was an executive in another transit organization doesn't mean he knows exactly how a Wee-Z-Bond works, or how aural interference can lead to phantom clear blocks of track. He doesn't need to know that. He needs to know how to get the person who DOES know that to have the ability and means to repair those problems.