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Sarles talks safety, escalators, bag searches, funding & more

WMATA General Manager Richard Sarles met with bloggers for a roundtable discussion yesterday. The unfortunately brief conversation covered bag searches, escalators, funding and several other topics of interest to riders.


Photo by HerrVebah on Flickr.

On safety

Sarles reiterated what he's been saying since coming on as interim General Manager: that safety is Metro's top priority. Metro has made several changes that Sarles believes will help grow the safety culture at the agency. They have increased the staff serving under Chief Safety Officer Jim Dougherty and increased safety staff's interaction with field operations.

Safety staff are now "embedded out in the field," Sarles says at bus and rail shops. These staff are now interacting regularly with superintendents, mechanics and other employees, and are participating on the local safety committee. This is encouraging, though it highlights how awry Metro's safety procedures had gone, if its safety officers were not previously working at the local facilities on a regular basis.

In accordance with an NTSB recommendation, WMATA has also put in a safety measurement system to collect data which can analyzed to uncover trends and anomalies. These data can be better used to identify hazards over time.

Sarles also emphasized that WMATA's new focus on State of Good Repair investment will help promote the safety culture with employees at all levels. "The employees see [our state of good repair investments] and that helps them realize that we, as an organization, are making heavy investments in safety. That encourages people to think more about it."

"We had to really rebuild the capital program management capability of this organization, because it had been lost. Because of the feeling that construction was done, so we just have little to do. Well, we have a lot to do, $5 billion in 6 years."

On escalators and elevators

Sarles brought up the work WMATA is undertaking to implement the recommendations of a consultant for improving escalator and elevator reliability.

We've criticized that report, however, for not presenting any causal analysis of actual downtime, but rather a list of a couple dozen standards that WMATA falls short of.

When asked whether he knows the actual causes of escalator and elevator downtime, Sarles agreed that the report did not provide such causes. Such analysis is being done by the new head of the Elevator and Escalator Department (ELES) using data that is now being entered into the maintenance management system.

With this analysis, they hope to know the causes of downtime "in the next couple months". He pointed out that ELES had been elevated in the organizational structure to help problems be addressed more seriously.

Sarles added that the major overhaul work at Foggy Bottom, where the 3 street to mezzanine escalators are being completely replaced and a staircase added, is indicative of the steps Metro is willing to take to get the vertical movement problem under control.

"I'm an engineer by background," Sarles said. "I started out in construction, so my thing is delivering results, not talking about them forever."

On bag searches

Having told WTOP on Monday that the bag searches are more about deterrence than detection, we asked Sarles to explain how exactly these searches could deter a terrorist attack. Instead, he turned to the example of New York, essentially saying that because the NYPD and Port Authority Police have this policy, WMATA should as well.

"You don't want the bad guys to think everything is predictable," he said, reminded the group of bloggers several times that this is not his rationale, but that of counter­terrorism experts. These experts have advised the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey and NYPD policies, where, he says, random searches have been successful, though without offering any clarification of what 'successful' means.

When pressed on how much unpredictability is introduced by forcing a bad guy to go to a station several blocks away, Sarles again relied the authority of counter­terrorism experts. These unnamed experts say that terrorists like to plan, and the unpredictability of random searches may force them to go back to the drawing board. Asked what's to keep a terrorist for planning for the event that their first target station has bag checks, he immediately changed the subject.

We asked Sarles whether WMATA had explored any ways to use the TSA grants to implement counter­terrorism measures that also increase the presence of officers within the station, on the platforms. He answered quickly, "Well, these searches are just outside the fare control line," before changing the subject.

On a positive note, Sarles emphasized that he would not allow random searches to be something that caused any riders to stand in line to enter a station. "I don't want customers to be inconvenienced."

On funding

Sarles voiced far more concern over the future of federal funding, given the new Republican-controlled House, than the future of funding from Virginia or Maryland. He said he would be actively lobbying Congress, as well as working to mobilize other supporters much like was done at the end of 2010 to support extending the $230 transit benefit.

When asked what a drop in federal funding would mean, Sarles was blunt about the impact it would have on bringing WMATA up to a state of good repair. "We will not catch up. It's devastating."

On farecard improvements

WMATA has revealed plans to migrate from SmarTrip cards to an open payment fare technology. Sarles said the agency is just in the beginning phases of exploring these technologies, and will not be rolling out a full scale change until it is sure of the reliability and can mitigate the inconveniences to riders.

When asked about the summer revelation that the agency seemed to be running out of SmarTrip cards, he recognized there were clearly some communication issues that needed to be addressed as the agency moves forward with new fare payment programs.

On improving communication

We asked Sarles how he can help break the barriers between the various divisions of WMATA to improve communication within the agency, and between the operating divisions and the public. He said that he is working to instill the idea of "one message" with his leadership team.

When asked if this unifying approach could result in precluding more communication between the agency's divisions and the public, he said that WMATA is trying to open up communication through data reports and other regular releases.

On customer service

Sarles has been talking with riders at downtown stations over the last couple weeks, asking them what their biggest complaints are.

While the most common complaints he's heard deal with the disrespectful way in which many riders treat the trains and buses, leaving newspapers and trash behind, he acknowledged that the agency needs to make improvements in customer service.

WMATA is having an independent group assess the agency's customer call center, and how quickly and effectively it responds to customer issues. Sarles also plans to reintroduce a "secret shopper" program to get feedback from riders.

On increasing capacity

Major capital investments will be consumed by safety and state of good repair projects. In the near and medium term, Sarles acknowledged that the agency has no plans for major increases in capacity. Instead, WMATA will be concentrating on ways to improve the bus system, working with the jurisdictions to implement priority measures such as traffic signal priority and bus lanes.

On the 7000 series

The new rail cars, expected by 2014, will be 4-car sets, instead of married pairs, eliminating two cabs on each four car set and making more room for riders. The cars will have cameras throughout as well as automated station announcements and electronic information boards very similar to the New York Subway's new FIND systems.

While the "transverse" seating arrangements of the current cars, with forward and back facing seats, will remain, the cars we be built to allow reconfiguring the seating to "longitudinal," where seats face the center, if crowding becomes a problem and the agency decides to make the change.

Sarles said he would be happy to host blogger roundtables in the future, and we also discussed briefly the possibility of having chats with other members of the leadership team who can speak to more specific questions.

Although our time was short, and there were some dodgy answers regarding bag searches, the conversation with Sarles was informative and encouraging. We hope this engagement with the community continues.

Sarles is also appearing on TBD NewsTalk starting at 10 today.

Transit


Sarles could provide useful stability for a few years

Governor O'Malley sort-of-confirmed this morning that the WMATA Board is planning to keep on Richard Sarles as permanent General Manager/CEO. While Sarles isn't what WMATA needs in the long run and might not tackle the bigger, long-term problems, but he could be a good source of stability as WMATA extricates itself from its immediate crises.


Photo by tracktwentynine on Flickr.

Both the Riders' Advisory Council and Board of Trade recommended making the General Manager role more of a CEO. The CEO should be the public face of WMATA, and develop a clear vision plan for getting the agency where it needs to be with issues like funding, labor relations, and more. The CEO should publicly advocate for his vision and engage with stakeholders directly and through the press.

Long-term, Metro needs some serious changes. The administrative structure is very ossified, departments work in silos and don't communicate enough, and really talented change agents have little ability to accomplish great things. Too many good people end up just leaving for other kinds of jobs.

Sarles hasn't been that kind of strong and visible leader, and as interim GM, he hasn't tackled the big problems. He's been quiet, but has built up better relations with local officials and bodies like the NTSB. That's something Metro really needs. He's launched a good "vital signs" report to track progress, and set up a very specific checklist of issues he would tackle this year.

On the other hand, other than not having any crashes, he hasn't done much (or at least not much yet) to improve customer service, WMATA's notoriously poor relationship with the press or its secretive culture, or really engaged with riders or the public at all. His defense of a wrong-headed bag search program based on no data whatsoever is disappointing.

For another year or two, maybe what WMATA needs most is just for everything to be really stable. Many Board seats are turning over, which will bring in some great new blood but also lose some institutional memory. That could make this a relatively bad time to also bring in a brand-new GM.

In other words, if Sarles' leadership has been positive for one year, why not keep it going for another year or two?

The big question, once he doesn't have an immediate end date, is whether he will start to deal with these longer-term issues. WMATA needs to lead on bringing jurisdictional partners together to find some more sustainable revenue sources. The Board and GM/CEO need to attack the organizational culture.

There aren't many reasons to believe this will suddenly happen. His approach to safety has been too reactive and short-term, which has made the NTSB happy but leaves some issues unsolved. Devoting all resources to safety has also taken all money away from upgrading the infrastructure to handle more 8-car trains. Without that, Metro is already nearly at capacity on some lines, and overcrowding on platforms can cause its own safety problems.

Will we be dealing with other safety threats in a few years and look back baffled as to why the leadership of today didn't tackle them, just as people reacted to John Catoe not having done anything about failing track signals?

Perhaps fortunately, Sarles is not going to be GM for a long time. He was already at retirement when he came on board. He'll probably only stay for a few more years.

Rather than thinking of him as permanent General Manager, I'm going to consider him the longer-term interim GM, but not the CEO many have called for. An interim GM like him could be just what WMATA needs for a couple of years. However, the Board shouldn't completely stop thinking about how to find the real CEO who will truly lead WMATA where it has to go. In a couple of years, that'll again be their task.

Transit


Lessons not learned: The Tenleytown escalator failure

On November 16 at 4:11 pm, a worker at the Tenleytown Metro station moved a barricade from an escalator that was out of service for brake repairs. 16 passengers subsequently walked up the escalator only to find 3 removed steps.


Photo by brownpau on Flickr.

After safely traversing the 4-foot hole, another passenger placed an orange cone found nearby in front of the escalator at 4:15 pm. At 4:19 pm the barricade was returned to the escalator.

As discussed last week, WMATA has misinterpreted the FTA's recommendation to analyze causes of safety incidents and circulate lessons that the agency can learn. Instead of using them to find real root causes, they're using the Lessons Learned circulars to berate workers for not following rules.

The incident of the moved escalator barricade at Tenleytown is one of the first incidents to receive this Lessons Learned follow-up from the safety department at WMATA.

Certainly the worker did not follow the rules or common sense in removing the barricade from the out of service escalator. WMATA used the Lessons Learned circular to criticize this.

However, real analysis of safety problems involves not just looking for the most evident failure, but digging deeper.

  1. Why did people try to walk up an escalator missing steps? Because the worker moved the barricade.
  2. Why did the worker move the barricade? Because he needed to restart another escalator that had also gone out of service, and there were no other barricades. 2 of the 3 escalators were now out of service, and rush hour was just beginning.
  3. Why were there no other barricades? Because there are not more barricades available at stations.
  4. Why are barricades needed? Because workers need to alert passengers about any out of service escalator before performing work on it.
Should he have moved the barricade? No. But does lecturing workers on not moving barricades do anything to prevent this from recurring? No.

If you stop at the first step, the conclusion is to tell workers not to move the barricades. But if you continue the chain to the end, the real Lesson Learned should be that WMATA needs to provide some means to alert passengers about any out of service escalator, regardless of the number that are out of service at any station. For example, every station manager or escalator worker could have yellow or red tape to place across the escalator opening.

The even deeper lesson learned for management would probably be this: when management doesn't resource workers properly, they are forced to choose between following rules and doing their jobs.

Instead, the Lessons Learned circular lists 3 "Contributing Causes" and 2 action items for "Preventing Recurrence" that generally berate the worker for breaking a rule.

The first contributing cause, "There was no way to secure the barrier to the escalator," is not a contributing cause at all. It's just someone skipping the causal analysis to say what they think should be done to keep workers from breaking rules. And sure enough, the first action item is that "ELES is researching an attachment that will allow the barrier to be clamped to the escalator."

If the barrier had been clamped to the Tenleytown escalator, then the entire rush hour would have seen 2 out of service escalators, with the only remaining working escalator going down.

The second contributing cause, "The out of service status of the escalator should be clearly communicated to all employees," makes no sense. This is a recommendation, not a cause. And it would also change nothing.

The third contributing cause, "No one should remove or alter a safety device before first ensuring it is safe to do so," is again not a cause, but a rule. The rule is then repeated at the conclusion of the circular.

The only other action item for preventing recurrence is this: "Signage will be improved and a redundant barrier located near the work area is being considered." WMATA should do more than just "consider" providing a barrier, even if only red tape, for every escalator.

What is the point of Lessons Learned if it involves scolding employees for breaking rules, while management only has to "consider" rectifying the deeper cause.

The central challenge facing WMATA's efforts to improve safety and reliability is its inability to conduct causal analysis when systems fail.

The Lessons Learned program is a vivid illustration of this inability. General Manager Sarles is to be commended for putting the program in place. Given how the safety department has executed on the program, though, Sarles and the WMATA Board should insist that it change course to demonstrate the causal analysis that the FTA intended.

Transit


Lessons not learned: WMATA misinterprets FTA safety program and blames workers

In December, WMATA began issuing new circulars to employees called Lessons Learned. The purpose of Lessons Learned is to describe safety issues that have occurred as well as the steps being taken to prevent future occurrence. Three have been issued thus far, and GGW received copies from one of the recipients.


A Metro "Lessons Learned" Circular

While well-intentioned, the Lessons Learned program illuminates the struggle WMATA management is having with their own employees. The circulars make clear that management really learns the same single lesson after every incident: their employees don't follow rules.

WMATA is doing these Lessons Learned circulars because the FTA told them to in their audit. But WMATA is missing the point of the FTA program.

The purpose is not to berate workers with the "lessons" they should learn from these incidents, but to educate management about the lessons they should learn about how the agency responded.

The FTA explains the Lessons Learned program as follows in their audit:

While such programs are not generally considered a part of training, they can be of exceptional value in educating management. Lessons Learned programs address the agency's response to problems that have occurred and been dealt with in the recent past. The salient issues are identified and managers and other other personnel are encouraged to critically review the way the agency responded.
In other words, the lessons learned from causal analyses of incidents are lessons for management. That's because the root causes of safety and performance lapses, as most texts on safety and quality management make clear, "are underlying, are reasonably identifiable, can be controlled by management and allow for generation of recommendations."

In announcing the program to WMATA staff via email, however, GM Sarles already concludes that the relevant lessons are not for management but for front-line workers.

I want to call your attention to the new circulars being issued by SAFE called Lessons Learned. These brief handouts clearly describe safety issues that have arisen on our system or other systems and point out how to prevent recurrences. The circulars remind us of the importance of safe work practices, as well as the need for unwavering attention to safety rules and regulations.

At the end of the day, learning from others' experiences can help prevent injuries and save lives. I applaud the work of SAFE and our labor partners to provide this information to all employees and recommend that everyone read the first three circulars that have been issued http://metroweb/safety/lessons_learned/default.aspx.

We will look at specific Lessons Learned circulars in future posts. The first Lessons Learned circular that we will look at concerns the removal of a barrier from an escalator at Tenleytown that had 3 steps removed for maintenance.

Transit


Should the FTA regulate urban transit agencies?

Imagine if Metro had to pay a fine for every safety standard violation. What if Metro officials and operators lost licenses to work in transit if they repeatedly violated safety standards?


Photo by atomicfamily on Flickr.

These ideas could become reality if the FTA gains the ability to regulate public transit agencies. And while many Washingtonians regard this as a no-brainer, there are serious concerns that few are considering in the post-Red Line Crash fear-mongering.

The standard argument in favor of FTA regulation is that regional safety oversight bodies are simply too unprepared and ill-equipped to assure safety on America's transit systems.

These bodies, like the Tri-State Oversight Committee which provides safety oversight of Metro, have little to no staff and no enforcement powers. The DOT oversees safety on Amtrak, so why not subway and light-rail systems too?

While this standard argument is compelling, there has been little engagement with the counterargument to federal oversight of urban transit. Consider the following concerns.

Urban rail is very safe: Subways and light rail are already very safe, safer by far than other modes of transportation that are regulated by the DOT including air travel. One wonders then if improving on an already very low fatality rate should be a priority for federal dollars given the other more dangerous modes regulated by the DOT.

The TOC can be improved easily without federal intervention: The criticism leveled against the TOC is not directed at their competence, but at their lack of enforcement powers and funding. So, instead of building a new federal agency, why not give the TOC enforcement powers and increased funding?

TOC audit was actually better than the FTA audit of Metro: While it received little press attention, the TOC audit released earlier this month was more detailed and actionable than either the NTSB or FTA audits concerning the systemic safety hazards at Metro.

Federal urban rail regulation may be unconstitutional: Federal regulation of urban transit systems may ultimately be overturned by the courts. The Commerce Clause of the Constitution limits federal regulation to interstate commerce, and most urban transit systems don't cross state lines like Metro does.

NTSB previously opposed FTA oversight of urban rail: Every urban transit system is very different, despite appearances to the contrary. Unlike other transit modes regulated by DOT which share a common network, urban transit systems develop independently according to unique needs and constraints. The NTSB argued in the 90s that this was reason enough to support the regional system of safety oversight in place today.

For these reasons, I would strongly oppose FTA regulation of Metro and other urban transit agencies if not for one prominent benefit that would result from FTA regulation:

FTA can balance NTSB: While the NTSB serves a valuable role in transportation safety, they are an exclusively reactive organization by statute. Unfortunately, the political pressure to implement any and all NTSB recommendations is overwhelming. This undermines attempts to create a proactive safety organization.

The USDOT, which requires transportation providers to take a more proactive approach to safety, balances the NTSB in the transport modes that it regulates. This balance will never be provided by the TOC or other regional safety oversight bodies.

I am honestly on the fence on this critical issue. While the answer to this issue seems obvious to many, I suspect that the damning of all things Metro since the Red Line Crash is undermining the healthy debate that this issue deserves.

The Obama administration supports a bill that would give the FTA this power, but Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) has put a hold on the bill in the Senate for many of the reasons listed here, as well as the lack of offsetting spending cuts or taxes in the legislation.

What do you think? Should the FTA regulate urban transit agencies?

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