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Metro 'safety culture' under attack at NTSB hearing

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Local,Transportation,Kytja Weir

Federal safety investigators exposed discrepancies between Metro's policies and practices that may have led to a safety breakdown causing the June 22 train crash, as well as a series of smaller but still deadly accidents in the subsequent eight months.

"They talk about a safety culture, but based on their testimony, there is no safety culture," Kenneth Hawkins, brother of Dennis Hawkins, who was killed in the crash, told The Examiner after the first of three days of hearings ended.

Hawkins was among a crowd of victims' families and their lawyers who listened with transit experts Tuesday to more than eight hours of testimony at the National Transportation Safety Board hearings on the Red Line crash that killed nine and injured more than 70 people.

Five days before the crash, NTSB documents show, a work order was created to fix an "intermittent" failure occurring on a track circuit at the eventual crash site, the second time since 2008. But Metro mechanics made no adjustments because a thunderstorm was rolling in.

Investigators now believe the failure is what caused the Red Line train to slam into a stopped train that the automatic safety system failed to detect.

Metro Assistant Chief Engineer Harry Heilmann testified that "there's no way to confirm" that the same problem did not occur during a near-miss in 2005 involving three trains under the Potomac River, despite what Metro officials have insisted for months.

The board of directors came under fire for failing to create safety oversight of Metro and failing to mention the issue when it redrafted board procedures last month. Metro Chairman Peter Benjamin shocked the audience when he chastised a union official for asking what policies and procedures the board has enacted to improve safety since the crash.

"You're presuming that's the best way to change a culture," Benjamin testified. "You're missing the point." Instead, the chairman said, safety starts from the "bottom up."

Metro touted how its employees do not face reprisals for reporting safety violations, as executives have open-door policies. But workers have told officials of its local oversight group that the agency has a culture of retaliation.

Metro's largest union has been trying to get the agency to improve a "whistleblower" protection rule to match federal standards.

Metro General Manager John Catoe acknowledged that when he arrived at Metro, he added a layer of management between the chief safety officer and him, contrary to the agency's long-standing policy of a direct line to the general manager. Catoe reversed his policy after the crash.

The hearings are slated to resume at 8 a.m. Wednesday and last through Thursday.

kweir@washingtonexaminer.com

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