2.24.2010

NTSB's Metro hearings begin: no real surprises

Since this is a relatively big story, I wanted to take a second to briefly discuss this week's National Transportation Safety Board hearings. The Washington Post is running the big headline in today's paper about the two previous near-misses and how that indicated a problem with Metro's Automatic Train Control system.

The only difference between what is being published today, and what's been published for the last eight months is that this occurred at a federal hearing. Hearing about these incidents is no surprise to people who have been following the topic of Metro safety following the 6/22 crash. So far, these hearings are only serving one purpose: to put all of this on the record (again), and to demonstrate that Metro has failed to establish any sort of emphasis on safety.

It's good that we have senior Metro officials going on the record about the near-miss in 2005, which nearly resulted in a three train collision under the Potomac. We do learn that contrary to previous comments by Metro, no one was 100% sure the issue had been completely resolved. This fact itself is extremely disturbing--a near catastrophe (which would have resulted in possibly hundreds of deaths) was not enough for Metro to do everything it could to identify and solve the problem.

However, this is all incredibly frustrating. Yes, government moves slowly, I suppose, but we are talking about incidents that occurred 5 years ago, and a deadly crash that occurred more than 8 months ago. We've had months and months and months of coverage, seemingly always uncovering some new safety flaw. I'm not even the NTSB or the Washington Post, and yet I have had Metro employees contact me to vent their frustrations and concerns about safety. Track workers have been killed, again, despite numerous safety recommendations by the NTSB.

So yes, to anyone who has the ability to read, it's been obvious that Metro's culture of safety has been lacking. Time and time and time again this has been said, and now it'll be said once again. The only difference, now, is that there is some discussion of a federal Metro Control Board or some such. It's being presented as a threat, if Metro does not improve then the feds will have to take away your toys and send you to your room.

Is there really any reason to wait on this? At this point, I don't see how federalizing the Metro Board could be any worse than the status quo? Sure, there are a few "good" members of the Metro Board, but the system is facing all sorts of serious problems. The General Manager is leaving, which does provide an opportunity to completely reshape the organization's management structure and style. However, Metro has had a hard time finding a new general manager, and without serious change; including reworking of the Board; it's unlikely we'll see the kind of management changes that are really needed.

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