The Metro Board of Directors sought guidance from members of the National Transportation Safety Board Monday on how to follow through on recommendations made after a probe of last year's fatal Metro rail crash, but the federal panel had few specifics to offer.
Investigators found that a faulty electronic circuit caused the crash that killed nine people and injured dozens, but the NTSB also found that Metro's poor safety culture and ineffective safety oversight were contributing factors.
The NTSB found that safety oversight by Metro's board was ineffective. But Metro board Chairman Peter Benjamin said the boar has often been criticized for being micromanagers and asked how his board might strike a balance.
Several Metro board members asked the NTSB if there were any transit agencies that have a governing body that has embraced safety culture and could be used as a model. NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman responded that they generally work with agencies that have problems, not model agencies, but she could refer them to groups that could help.
Safety starts at the top of the organization and the board must be able to keep a finger on the pulse of the organization, NTSB member Robert Sumwalt told Metro's board. That requires a culture where people can report problems without fear of retaliation and trust that their concerns will be heard.
Sumwalt said he also noticed that the charter of Metro's board of directors there is no mention of safety.
"That should be changed immediately," Benjamin replied. That alteration in the board's charter was one of several Benjamin said the Metro board is working on or has already made. He said the board has already expanded its safety department with a chief safety officer and staff that reports to the board monthly, but they will also create a board safety committee. The board has strengthened whistleblower protections for workers and passed a budget focused on safety, he said.
But there's no way to create a perfectly safe transit system, Benjamin said. He asked if the NTSB had any hints for how to deal with the difficult tradeoff between providing service and keeping people safe.
Hersman said she did not because the NTSB focuses on safety and doesn't have to manage all the variables that Metro does.
"We don't share that same burden," she said. "We look at safety and make recommendations."
Jim Graham, a board member who was the chairman at the time of the crash, said he has heard the discussion of the problems with Metro's safety culture and the board's lack of safety oversight. But he sees the crash as a failure of technology.
Since the crash, Graham said he has asked himself what he could have done differently.
"I'm not sure there's anything I could have done based on what I knew," he said.
Benjamin said he suspects that there was something they could have done.
"Maybe we didn't know all of the things we should have," he said. "We now know these things and we now need to do something about them."
Both Benjamin and General Manager Richard Sarles said Metro is committed to following through on each of the NTSB's recommendations. Since the meeting, Sarles said he has been meeting with Metro's senior leadership to begin developing a plan to act on each of the 16 recommendations to Metro as quickly as possible.
"I'm heartened to hear that someone would go back and begin immediate action," Hersman said. "Our recommendations are not worth anything if people don't implement them."
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