Metro Mea Culpa

Metro's general manager discusses how Metro will arrive at a culture of safety.

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    The charm offensive has arrived.

    Washington Metro Area Transit Authority general manager Richard Sarles takes to the pages of the Washington Post today to highlight the positive takeaways from Monday's meeting between Metro's board and the National Transportation Safety Board. A meeting that, in itself, was a less than auspicious occasion.

    Sarles says that Metro is taking concrete steps to implement a culture of safety -- the new catch phrase for solving Metro's real and perceived problems.

    Specifically, Sarles says that the agency has added safety staff. Further, in light of the meeting with the NTSB, Metro has established a direct reporting line from the chief safety officer to the general manager. Further, the board has built an anonymous hotline for employees to report concerns and beefed up its whistleblower protection policy.

    Sarles also reports on progress on some longstanding Metro safety issues. Metro recently awarded a contract to replace its aging 1000-series rail cars. And Metro has retrofitted about three-quarters of its fleet with rollback protection -- an urgent fix recommended by the NTSB following a 2004 crash at the Woodley Park Station. The software upgrade prevents trains from sliding backward in manual mode, as a train carrying no passengers did in 2004, smashing into another train and injuring 20 people.

    (So this step is not a direct response to the aftermath of last year's deadly Red Line crash, but a continuing effort.)

    One aspect of Sarles's editorial drives at one possible reason for the dissatisfaction many people in Washington feel with Metro. Sarles notes that Metro's board put together a $5 billion, six-year capital spending plan, the largest since the rail system was completed. Dan M. of Greater Greater Washington sasy that age and associated maintenance are factors that Washingtonians take for granted because the Metro system is so young:

    Metro is only about a generation old. It was planned and built since most of its riders have been alive, and for its first couple of decades, nothing went wrong. The maintenance and safety problems that have plagued Metro this decade are for the most part new events, consequences of an aging system that we simply didn't have to deal with until recently.

    .... Things have, inevitably, changed. Escalators get old. Tracks crack. Repairs have to be made. Older infrastructure requires maintenance that is often inconvenient to riders. These are facts of life, dealt with by every infrastructure agency in the world, but they are facts that Washingtonians didn't have to think about until recently.

    Sarles might also like to get to know Rob Pitingolo, an urbanist blogger who's new to the District. Pitingolo says that Washingtonians' dissatisfaction with Metro is something of a bias error:

    I think the simple answer to this question is that so many people use it here that there are a whole lot more opportunities to hear from people that don't like it. In Cleveland, the same types of professionals who get frustrated with 'hot cars' and delayed trains and rude station managers simply aren't using public transit. They realize how poor the service is, but they are disconnected from it on a personal level.

    The sad truth is that Metro would be pleased in 2010 to be dealing with mere complaints about broken escalators and single-track service. Wear and tear on the Metro system that results in harm is something the area cannot abide. Sarles and the Metro board are taking steps to address those problems -- and to let people know about those steps. But it will take more work -- and greater investment and dedication to improving transit fundamentals -- to improve Washington's relationship with Metro.


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