Washington's Metrorail system is significantly safer now than it was last year when a train crash killed nine people and injured dozens of others, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday.
In July, the board's Deborah Hersman issued a scathing report criticizing an "anemic safety culture" at the nation's second largest subway system that contributed to the June 2009 crash near the system's Fort Totten station. It was the worst accident in the system's history and one of several fatal accidents in recent years.
But in sworn testimony Thursday in front of a congressional oversight committee, Hersman said Metro has made clear progress on safety and begun to implement more than a dozen NTSB recommendations.
"They have done a lot of learning in the last year-plus," Hersman said of Metro's management. "The Metro board was very willing to listen to the (NTSB) and has been willing to take those lessons to heart."
Metro's general manager, Richard Sarles, agreed that they system is safer but cautioned that "we have a long way to go."
Among the improvements cited by Hersman and Sarles:
- A contract to begin replacing the Metro system's oldest rail cars, which the NTSB has said crumple like accordions in a crash and need to be replaced. The new cars will not start coming on line, though, until 2013.
- A new, experienced safety officer who reports directly to the general manager, and the filling of roughly a dozen vacancies in jobs dedicated to safety.
- A safety hotline that allows workers to report problems anonymously if they choose.
Some of the changes touted by Metro management, though, have not really been felt by all of the frontline workers, said Anthony Garland, secretary of the Amalgamated Transit Union local that represents Metro employees.
For years, Garland said, Metro workers were subjected to a system "where the solution to everything was to increase discipline on the work force." Morale suffered as a result, he said.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., who chaired the bulk of the hearing, said Metro needs to fully implement a system that ensures workers are not punished for bringing safety issues to the attention of superiors.
Overall, though, Norton said after the hearing that commuters should feel confident that improvements are being made and that it's safe to ride the system.
Funding issues also remain a problem. The Metro board recently approved a $5 billion, 6-year capital budget, its largest since the system began operations. But even then, Metro remains several billion dollars short of what is needed.