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WMATA Board not at fault for crash, but needs to step up

The NTSB's meeting on the 2009 Red Line Crash continued this afternoon with even more troubling revelations. They also criticized the Board's lack of safety oversight, which seems unfair for before the crash, but the Board does need to step up now that they know there are problems.


Dr. Loren Groff at the NTSB.

WMATA top management seems to have tragically ignored safety warnings and potential problems for years. The systems generated 8000 "alarms" from track circuit errors per week, but according to the NTSB, WMATA safety officials ignored these problems because they assumed the system was "failsafe."

Some train operators were instructed to run their trains on manual because there were problems with automatic operation, and operators were being punished for delays.

However, NTSB staff also blamed the Board for not doing more on safety. NTSB member Robert Sumwalt also repeatedly brought up the Board's role during questioning. According to one presentation by Loren Groff, they felt the Board should have not only asked tough questions of top management, but gone around them to conduct their own investigations into the safety operation of the organization.

That seems unrealistic. It's probably true the Board could have asked more tough questions. They could have commissioned an Inspector General's report. But they asked safety questions of the General Manager and got what seemed like satisfactory answers.

According to the NTSB discussion, the Board asked the General Manager to explain the top safety incidents and what was being done about them. The Board sees itself as a policy-making body, and doesn't meddle in day to day operations. Asking the GM for a safety summary seems like the right approach. If the GM's summary was misleading, it would be nice if Board members had psychically divined this, but it's hard to see how exactly they could have.

Sumwalt also criticized the way the WMATA Board has a committee on Customer Service, Operations, and Safety. "We at the NTSB only focus on safety," he said, "but that committee has to balance customer service with safety." Yes. It should. Customer service and safety are both important. The NTSB may have the luxury of ignoring everything but safety, but that doesn't mean that boards or agencies can do so.

The Board could have constantly asked the General Manager what the agency was doing to comply with NTSB recommendations, said Groff. But we know that many of those recommendations were financially unrealistic. The NTSB members might wish that everyone spent all their time sitting around and only worrying about safety and nothing else, but that's not how it works in reality.

Another NTSB member noted that in a hearing, Board Chairman Peter Benjamin previous Board Chairman Jim Graham said he hadn't heard of the Tri-State Oversight Committee before the crash, though then-General Manager John Catoe was well aware of it. But few of us out in the public had heard of it either. The TOC, by all accounts, operated in obscurity and for some strange reason didn't feel it could talk to the Board or the public.

We were all ignorant of the safety problems before the crash. Now, following investigations, it's clear that there were many organizational problems within WMATA, and the TOC wasn't functioning properly. I wish that the Board or other leaders had found out and fixed it, but it's hard to throw stones at leaders who only knew what we knew, and we didn't know about the problem.

The fault lies with General Manager Catoe and the safety officials at WMATA. Now, knowing this was such an issue, the Board does have a responsibility to ensure it gets fixed. Now, the Board should delve more deeply into the progress the agency is making on safety. Now, they shouldn't be satisfied with vague answers from management.

And now, if future crashes happen that could have been prevented, it would be fair to blame the Board if they don't take adequate action. I'm not sure that stepped-up level of oversight is happening. The NTSB said that even today, the Board doesn't claim responsibility for safety. They're right that this should change. It should start now.

Update: I've revised the headline and intro paragraph to reflect some further thoughts on what the Board needs to do going forward.

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

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Does Metro's board have a staff component, people who could work with the operations departments and provide the board members with something more comprehensive than an executive summary? If this all boils down to the GM was the only conduit of information and he lied, maybe the board needs to have more fingers to dig into what is really going on in headquarters.

by Lou on Jul 27, 2010 2:20 pm • linkreport

I was really disappointed with a report this morning on WAMU. A fellow from Railway Age was speculating about how the WMATA Board was interfering with the operation of the organization. "Let the professionals run the place."

This seems pretty much 100% wrong to me. I am sure that there was interference, which was destructive at times, but clearly more oversight was needed too. In light of the massive holes in safety that the crash revealed it's ridiculous that Railway Age is out there ranting about how the board does not have the expertise to interfere with the professionals at WMATA...

Here's the piece.

http://wamu.org/news/10/07/27.php#36207

by DavidDuck on Jul 27, 2010 2:27 pm • linkreport

The Board should ask:

What safety audits do you conduct? Who participates in these audits? What do the audits look at?

What problems did you find? Were these problems previously known or unknown? Does the organization being audited have a robust culture of self-assessment? Can they find their own problems, prioritize them, and devise and track corrective actions adequately?

What were the corrective actions? Are they robust, broad-based, do they have the support of the organization or do they appear "punitive" or imposed without reason?

If Metro says "no problems", or the corrective actions are weak, there's a starting point. Every organization has problems. The corrective actions should be a combination of short-term and long-term, and should get deep enough into the problem that it should be fixed and stay fixed.

by Michael Perkins on Jul 27, 2010 2:38 pm • linkreport

I don't get the kid gloves treatment of the WMATA Board, although it's reminiscent of the kid gloves treatment of John Catoe.

The WMATA Board needs to go. All of them. Period. If we held a vote of no confidence in the WMATA Board, it wouldn't even be close.

There's a whole lot of people at Metro - from the top executives, to the mid-level managers, to the front line workers - that need to be fired.

Any Board that has a member who repeatedly says he doesn't actually use Metro - Jim Graham, I'm looking your way - or that has alternate members who never attend meetings - Marion Barry, I'm looking at you - is a Board that's an operational failure.

Until we stop coddling Metro and making excuses for their performance, nothing will change.

by Fritz on Jul 27, 2010 3:22 pm • linkreport

Marion Barry hasn't been on the board in years, Fritz.

by Michael Perkins on Jul 27, 2010 3:24 pm • linkreport

@Michael Perkins:
No wonder he hasn't been coming!

by Matt Johnson on Jul 27, 2010 3:26 pm • linkreport

I'm with Fritz, and kind of surprised that the defense of the Board. You say that:

"We were all ignorant of the safety problems before the crash. Now, following investigations, it's clear that there were many organizational problems within WMATA, and the TOC wasn't functioning properly. I wish that the Board or other leaders had found out and fixed it, but it's hard to throw stones at leaders who only knew what we knew, and we didn't know about the problem. "

The difference is that we're not Board members, and it isn't our job to be aware of what's going on within WMATA and ask the right questions and demand satisfactory answers. Comparing our lack of knowledge of the situation with the Board's lack of knowledge is like comparing apples to monkeys.

by Ryan S on Jul 27, 2010 3:26 pm • linkreport

@Michael Perkins: It doesn't matter that Barry isn't currently on the Board; he was on as recent as four or five years ago, right? How often does his replacement Michael Brown attend? How often does Neil Albert attend? If you've got alternates who rarely attend Board meetings, why on earth are they on the Board?

by Fritz on Jul 27, 2010 3:31 pm • linkreport

The NTSB seemed to think the 2005 near miss incident was a precursor to last years accident. If that is logical, it's a bit disingenuous to say we were unaware of the safety problem. That may be part of their reasoning for criticizing the board, for not getting to the root of that problem and instead letting it fester for 4 years.

by Lou on Jul 27, 2010 3:59 pm • linkreport

"Now, following investigations, it's clear that there were many organizational problems within WMATA, and the TOC wasn't functioning properly."

I would change that to Now, following investigations, it's clear that there are many organizational problems within WMATA, and the TOC isn't functioning properly. Regardless of what the board did or didn't know before the crash what is undeniable is that they know about these issues now and still haven't done much (if anything) to fix them in the year plus since the crash.

by Jacob on Jul 27, 2010 4:28 pm • linkreport

@David

"Yes. It should. Customer service and safety are both important. The NTSB may have the luxury of ignoring everything but safety, but that doesn't mean that boards or agencies can do so."

Disagree with your argument. Certainly the WMATA board has to balance safety with other factors. I propose that one effective way to make that happen might be to have a committee whose job it is to advocate just for safety. Someone at the board level should have that responsibility. That does not mean that they become safety dictators with the power to shut the system down every time they find a slippery platform. It means that they have an obligation to make a case for safety concerns in policy discussions with the board.

One could argue that the TOC was supposed to do that, but clearly WMATA board cannot argue that they thought TOC was taking care of that.

The point is not to impose draconian, unaffordable safety rules. The point is to create a system where there is an advocate with real power (not unlimited power) whose job it is to see that problems don't fester for years, and if a problem is not being addressed, somehow elevate it. Federal oversight is important, for this reason.

by DavidDuck on Jul 27, 2010 6:29 pm • linkreport

Not having much background here, but I wonder if Sumwalt meant not that there should not be a customer service committee, but that it should not be lumped in with safety. If so, I agree. Safety should be its own stand alone committee. Should be and should have been. Safety and reliability first, ahead of customer service, and then everything else radiates from that (as I've said before).

I think this entry is too easy on WMATA. I think there are people and were people, including technicians within WMATA who were protesting before June 2009 about the lack of safety culture.

by Jazzy on Jul 27, 2010 7:27 pm • linkreport

This piece seems a little weird. On the one had, there were tons of warnings concerning safety issues with Metro prior to the crash and yet you seem to want to give the Metro Board a pass. That's kinda like giving BP's CEO a pass after the oil spill in the gulf.

Also, there were more warnings. This isn't the first time NTSB investigated a Metro crash, and given Metro a list of recommendations. Those recommendations weren't necessarily followed:

http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk/2009/06/22/old-questions-about-crashworthiness-of-metro-cars/

All the board seems to be capable of doing is hiking fares.

by Jason Cherkis on Jul 27, 2010 10:15 pm • linkreport

Agreed. This kind of wishy washiness is what led to so many problems in the first place.

by Jazzy on Jul 27, 2010 11:30 pm • linkreport

Two serious complaints about WMATA's response to 2005 incident prior to 2009 fatal crash--1000 series cars (and possibly all pre-5000 series) are not crashworthy, and WMATA accepted staff recommendation that improving the pre-5000 frame to make it less telescop-tastic was not worth it.

The signal equipment is crap-tastic and should see replacement or at least intensive maintenance...but no "crash program" to fix the signals was implemented, AFAIK.

Here are the fine members of WMATA:

Principal Directors
Peter Benjamin
Chair, Maryland

Catherine Hudgins
First Vice Chair, Virginia

Neil Albert
Second Vice Chair, District of Columbia

Mortimer Downey
Federal Government

Elizabeth M. Hewlett
Maryland

Christopher Zimmerman
Virginia

Jim Graham
District of Columbia
Alternate Directors
Gordon Linton
Maryland

Jeffrey C. McKay
Virginia

Anthony R. Giancola, P.E.
District of Columbia

Marcel Acosta
Federal Government

Marcell Solomon
Maryland

William D. Euille
Virginia

Michael Brown
District of Columbia

Contact your respective state or district members and ask what they've done to improve safety since they joined the board, then report back here what they say.

by Trulee Pist on Jul 28, 2010 12:53 am • linkreport

David A. -- why do you insist that the NTSB need to factor in the fact WMATA lacks the funds to provide safety? NTSBÂ’s focus is safety -- pure and simple.

While you present the argument that WMATA lacks the funds to do this, if NTSB soft-pedaled their report, then WMATA itself might lack the "ammo" to get the funds to improve safety and itself might negilect spending money on safety.

I *want* a government watchdog, doggedly saying these things aren't safe -- even if the organization doesn't have the funds -- yes, I want a NIH NCI saying, fix cancer even if it will take years.

WMATA needs to examine its budget closely, and consider *DELAYING* the Silver Line until it can get itself up to running safely. Growth at the expense of being safe is stupid, reckless, and endangers us all.

Shame, shame, and again SHAME on GGW for not recognizing your need an idealist watchdog focused on improving things -- after all, is that the function YOU provide in a similar area for WMATA? The NTSB should always focus on safety. It is its mission -- you clearly forgot this.

Making things work given the scathing report -- that's for WMATA and the politics of this region to resolve. NTSB is the watchdog for safety.

Again -- I usually like GGW but I am *DISMAYED* that GGW would somehow thing dogged focus on improving safety was a bad thing. GGW has frequent articles about bike trails this and trolley car this -- those all cost money too. May you never get in an accident yourself!

And I also earnestly suggest that the Silver Line be delayed indefinitely until the SAFETY of the existing Metro lines being up to a sufficient level where we're not recklessly gambling with our health or lives when we ride.

by GGW forgets NTSB Purpose on Jul 28, 2010 9:44 am • linkreport

What would it take to get a full restructuring for Metro?

by SG on Jul 28, 2010 9:51 am • linkreport

I completely disagree with DA and GGW. How can you say "it's hard to throw stones at leaders who only knew what we knew, and we didn't know about the problem." Excuse me, but that is their job. That is what they get paid for.

Also, just because riding metro is safer than driving on our highways does not mean they should get a free pass on preventable deaths due to their collective negligence as a board. Mass transit should be safer than highways, much safer.

Granted, we should do more than simply point fingers, I agree. Your article, however, it absurd and seems as if you are ghostwriting for the board. "It's not my fault, but I'll do better next time." Yeah, they have said that before. See you next crash. Will it be their fault then?

by js on Jul 28, 2010 12:51 pm • linkreport

I don't like saying this, but it's difficult to be critical and harsh when you've met with, socialized with, and get along with leaders. I do think this is a hard hard lesson for GGW to learn.

by Jazzy on Jul 28, 2010 1:46 pm • linkreport

@SG

What would it take to get a full restructuring for Metro?

That would likely require re-visiting the original interstate compact that created Metro - which means approval of the exact same language from DC, MD, VA, and Congress.

Not sure how DC would work, since the original compact predates the Home Rule Act...

Nevertheless, it would be a heavy lift.

by Alex B. on Jul 28, 2010 1:56 pm • linkreport

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