The Price of Safety, Part I

This is the first part of a series. Follow along at Greater Greater Washington. New pieces will run roughly each week.

Track workers face dangers

Metro employees who inspect and maintain the system's infrastructure are vital to safe and reliable operations. The training, morale, and by extension safety of these workers must be an top priority. Sadly, Metro has suffered the loss of several track workers in recent years.

In 2006, Metro lost three track workers in two separate accidents. On May 14, 2006 senior mechanic John Lee Wong, 49, was struck and killed by a Red Line train near the Dupont Circle station. Six months later, on November 30, 2006, Leslie Cherry, 52, and Matthew Brooks, 36, were struck near the Eisenhower Avenue station. Both would die from their injuries. The National Transportation Safety Board investigated the incidents, and at the time had some strong words for Metro. Then NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker called Metro's worker safety record "unacceptable" and oversaw a detailed reconstruction of the incidents. For comparison, during the five year period (2003-2008), there were 10 track workers killed nationwide. Three of them were Metro workers. That figure encompasses all forms of heavy rail.

In January 2008, the NTSB completed their accident reports. The two Railroad Accident Briefs, RAB-08-01 and RAB-08-02, show the NTSB's findings and probable causes for the accidents. For the Dupont Circle incident, the NTSB concluded that Wong was either unaware of the presence of the train, or was unable to identify and reach a safe area away from the train's path. Furthermore, the NTSB identified weaknesses in Metro's right-of-way rules. The NTSB found that both track workers and train operators lacked vital information about each other's presence. This resulted in a train operator that was unaware of the presence of wayside workers and a lack of properly reduced train speed through the work area. The report also noted a lack of rule compliance, testing, and enforcement within Metrorail. Similar institutional causes were cited for the Eisenhower Avenue accident, and in that case the train operator also failed to slow or stop the train until after she had struck the workers.

The NTSB issued multiple recommendations to Metro to ensure enhanced track worker safety. These included:

  • Establishing procedures to be used for members of a work crew to acknowledge a lookout's warning that a train is approaching on a particular track from a particular direction before a lookout gives an all clear signal to a train. (R-08-01)
  • Establish a systematic program for frequent unannounced checks of employee compliance with Metrorail operating and safety rules and procedures. (R-08-02)
  • Perform periodic hazard analyses on the deficiencies identified by unannounced checks of employee compliance in response to Safety Recommendation R-08-02, and use the results to revise Metrorail training curricula or enforcement activities, as necessary, to improve employee compliance with operating and safety rules and procedures. (R-08-03)
  • Promptly implement appropriate technology that will automatically alert wayside workers of approaching trains and will automatically alert train operators when approaching areas with workers on or near the tracks. (R-08-04)
At the time of these recommendations, NTSB member (and now Chairwoman) Deborah Hersman felt that Metro did not have a strong culture of safety. Hersman was quoted, "a strong safety culture doesn't take dollars; it takes a will. They had rules. Those rules weren't observed."

In the wake of the NTSB findings, Metro general manager John Catoe vowed to make the transit system the safest in the country. Catoe said Metro would look at adding new technology to improve the safety of track workers. Polly Hanson, the Metro safety and security "czar" at the time, said she hoped to implement the NTSB's recommendations for alert equipment. Anonymous sources told the Washington Post that staff within the rail department were not in favor of this due to the extra work it would require.

Around this time, Metro hired a new Chief Safety Officer. Ronald Keele was brought on as part of Catoe's safety reform efforts. Keele had previously served in a similar role at Metro, and then at MTA in Maryland. He was also chief safety officer for NASA's space shuttle program, in the time period prior to the Columbia accident. Keele said one of his top priorities would be improving safety for track workers.

In July 2008, Catoe attended a Federal Transit Administration Safety Summit. From a U.S. Department of Transportation newsletter:

Mr. Catoe raised the following issues such as recognizing gradual changes to operating conditions, getting "out in front" of safety problems publicly, and leadership acceptance of responsibility and commitment to solving and tracking problems. Mr. Catoe emphasized the importance of top‐down leadership and accountability, and direct communication with employees. He also shared the importance of rules enforcement programs and agency‐wide participation.
In the nearly two years since the new safety chief was hired and the NTSB reports were issued, it's unclear how much progress has been made. According to WMATA's web site, Alexa Dupigny-Samuels now holds the position of Chief Safety Officer. Dupigny-Samuels was appointed in February 2009. The press release announcing Dupigny-Samuel's appointment offers no information about Keele's future. Metro has not answered inquiries about Keele's departure or reassignment. The latest update regarding the track worker protection technology was that Metro was still considering the options.

Tragedy would again strike Metro track workers this year. On August 9, Mike Nash, 63, was struck and killed by a gravel-spreading machine on the Orange Line. Nash had been working on the rails for 19 years. The NTSB declined to investigate that incident, as it did not involve a train, but rather maintenance equipment. On September 10, John Moore, 44, was struck by a train between the Braddock Road and National Airport stations. He died four days later. The NTSB was notified of the incident. At this time, Metro has offered little information about the incident. Moore worked with communications equipment, but it is unclear what work he was doing at the time of the accident.

It remains to be seen the cause of Moore's death, and whether it is directly related to any of the problems identified by the NTSB in 2006. With regard to the 2009 deaths, Catoe says that Metro has "got to get back to the basics of safety." Operating a railroad is dangerous, and there will be accidents, this much is for sure. However, given the seriousness of the NTSB recommendations issued not even two years ago, it is important to evaluate whether Metro has improved. Has Metro been able to develop the culture of safety Hersman deemed so important? Has the turnover in the safety department hampered these efforts? Has John Catoe lived up to his words of getting "out in front" of problems? The answer to these questions become clearer after looking at all of the areas of Metro safety.

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