Is Metro any safer one year after deadly crash?

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Local,News,DC,Maryland,Virginia,Transportation,Kytja Weir

Metro received a clear wake-up call when one train crashed into another outside of the Fort Totten rail station a year ago Tuesday, killing nine people and injuring dozens more.

The deadly wreck, the worst in the system's history, compounded years of warnings about the dangers of Metro's oldest rail cars collapsing upon impact and train near misses forecasting that its track safety system was failing to stop some trains from getting too close.

But the crash did not end the safety problems. Instead, the transit agency saw a spate of other deaths, safety missteps, damning reports and other problems in the past year.

Tuesday's memorials  

Metro and the transit system's largest union are scheduled to memorialize the victims of the deadly train crash at the Fort Totten rail station on the one-year anniversary Tuesday.

»  10 a.m.: Metro is hosting a ceremony near the Fort Totten station in honor of the nine killed, the dozens injured and the first responders who helped them. The agency will unveil a bronze plaque and lay a wreath at the site.

»  10:30 a.m.: Metro will hold a moment of silence to honor the victims throughout the system. Trains and buses will not stop operating.

»  6 p.m.: Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 is hosting a two-hour vigil at its Forestville headquarters, 2701 Whitney Place. The ceremony will memorialize the train operator killed in the crash and other workers killed while on duty in the past year, including four killed in three incidents on the tracks.

 

Yet some observers say Metro is finally taking steps to become safer.

"They're clearly safer now than there were a year ago," said longtime transit advocate Ben Ross. "As a rider, it's very clear they are taking a very conservative approach with slow zones. You get slowed down whenever they see a problem."

But many of the agency's promised safety steps are still unfinished.

The transit agency signed an $886 million contract this spring to buy new steel-bodied rail cars to replace the Rohr 1000 series cars that federal investigators have called uncrashworthy for years, but it will take at least six years for the new cars to arrive and all the old ones replaced.

The agency has been running trains in manual mode since the crash and has fixed problems in nearly 300 of its some 3,000 track circuits, according to a Metro database. It has not come up with the real-time sensor of failures in the train safety system that the National Transportation Safety Board asked it to create.

The transit agency has pushed away many of its old guard executives and replaced its safety director, having him report directly to the general manager. It has hired more safety officers for what had been an understaffed division cut off from other departments. But the agency has yet to fill its top job with a permanent general manager. Two slots on the board of directors remain empty and the board's overall structure is under fire.

The transit agency cracked down on its hiring standards and disciplinary codes, banning cell phone use by its drivers. But workers are still getting fired -- and even arrested -- regularly for violations on the job.

The agency has established an anonymous hot line for workers to report safety issues and recently began an anonymous survey of workers, but it has yet to finalize improved whistleblower protections to ensure that workers who speak out aren't punished.

A program to improve track worker safety in the wake of four deaths in the past year is under way, but the overhaul of the safety protocols isn't expected to be finished until fall.

"How do you determine how safe you are?" board Chairman Peter Benjamin said. "I do believe Metro is more concerned of its needs to deal with safety as an issue. ... We have very definitively decided that we have to focus on safety as the very most important part of what we do."

But the kinds of real changes that will make the system safer take time, observers say, and the tide is starting to turn.

Matthew Bassett, chairman of the Tri-State Oversight Committee charged with monitoring Metrorail's safety, said Metro has made "a significant amount of progress" on its safety initiatives. He said officials need to make sure they get it right. "If they rushed, they might as well not bother," he said.

Ross agrees, noting that the underlying cultural shift that needs to occur will not happen immediately. And still, he said, "The most dangerous part of the trip on Metro remains crossing the street to get to the station."

kweir@washingtonexaminer.com

 

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Kytja Weir

Staff Writer - Transportation
The Washington Examiner