Don't stop the presses quite yet, but John Catoe has started talking the talk about safety. This is the first time since the June 22 crash that the General Manager has outlined some substantial plans for improving safety within the agency. I've documented time and again how Metro's management has routinely ignored safety problems, and how John Catoe has consistently passed the buck.
In remarks to the Board of Directors, Catoe's tone has changed a bit. These comments follow a recent shake-up in management. Catoe's entire statement is available on the WMATA web site, and I wanted to take a minute to discuss what all of this means.
I think the big thing to remember when discussing safety at Metro is the difference between resource problems and management problems. Metro certainly has resource and funding issues. This cannot be ignored. Metro is constantly facing budget problems, which have made certain safety improvements difficult. The failure to quickly phase-out the Series 1000 railcars can be attributed to funding problems--the money hasn't been there to procure replacement rolling stock, so Metro had little choice but to keep the older cars in service.
However, many of the safety lapses that have been documented over the years had little to do with funding. There has been significant turnover in the agency's safety department, and the organizational chart has been redrawn several times, making institutional memory difficult to instill and maintain. From studying the previous incidents on Metro, it appears as though safety had not always been the number one priority. For those tasked to make safety a number one priority, the proper access to management and resources was not always provided. This resulted in a work culture that did not respond well to lapses in safety, and did not quickly or appropriately respond to safety concerns.
Given that John Catoe is the general manager, and all of Metro management reports to the GM, it has long been my belief that the buck needs to stop at the top. For months after the deadly 6/22 crash, we kept hearing the Metro was very safe and all that could be done was being done. That tune has changed. In the wake of the Senate hearings, Catoe is finally admitting there is much work to be done. In typical political fashion, he is declaring war on safety problems. He is vowing to work with all safety agencies, including safety researchers, to build up the proper culture of safety.
These are the words we have been waiting to hear. These are the statements that should have been made immediately following the June 22 crash. In fact, these are the statements that should have been made a decade ago by previous Metro General Managers. The fact that it has taken six months and Congressional hearings to get to this point is disappointing. And at this point, it's still just words.
Catoe says this isn't just lip service this time. I'd like to believe him, I really would. In order to be taken seriously, however, Metro will need to accompany these words with actions, and more importantly with improved transparency. Metro has lost the faith of not only lawmakers but customers. It's not enough to say you are going to work to improve safety. It's necessary to tell us exactly how, and to keep us updated on what progress you are making.
Instilling a culture of safety isn't an easy task. It will take a lot of hard work, and it will involve making some painful changes. The day-to-day operations at Metro are currently problematic. Employees from the front-line up to the General Manager are going to have to establish new habits, and learn new priorities. It's not impossible, though.
Improved cooperation with oversight agencies are important, and the anticipated $300 million in capital funds can go along way to relieve the budgetary stresses on safety. The hardest part, however, will be the management changes. Metro needs to recognize that they are a highly complex organization tasked with maintaining a delicate balance between service levels and safety. Metro managers need to understand that in a system such as Metrorail, safety is a very complex topic. Small failures in the system can be amplified and cascade into other areas very quickly. Tragic accidents in systems such as Metrorail rarely have one simple cause. They are almost always a chain of events, often starting with something that is easy to overlook.
If John Catoe can successfully overhaul safety within Metro, both in rail and in bus, then he will have an outstanding legacy as a transit chief. He will always have the burden of having been in charge during the agency's worst accident... but only he can ensure that everything possible can be done to prevent another crash. Again, it is disappointing it has taken this long to hear some real talk about safety, but this is an overwhelmingly positive development.