"Inadequate." That's the term used by the National Transportation Safety Board to describe Metro's safety procedures following an investigation into three serious accidents that occurred after the fatal June 2009 Red Line crash. Although Metro promised to make safety a top priority, another Metro employee was struck by a train and critically injured in the Shady Grove rail yard just three days after the latest NTSB scolding. And with The Examiner's Kytja Weir reporting Monday that many emergency subway exits are either locked or blocked by debris, it becomes painfully clear that Metro has not kept its promise.
The transit agency lacks "an effective safety management system," which NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman notes should be "the central part of an organization's operating plan." NTSB investigators blamed the 2010 deaths of two technicians working on the tracks in Rockville on Metro's failure to warn them that a train was approaching. Operator failure was blamed for a derailment at the Farragut North station in 2010 and a November 2009 crash in the West Falls Church rail yard that caused $9 million in damage. Now it's doubtful whether Metro can safely evacuate passengers from its labyrinth of underground tunnels, should another accident occur.
Since 2007, the Tri-State Oversight Committee has been warning Metro officials that many of its 121 subterranean emergency exits are not functional. Despite numerous inspections pointing out the hazard, some exits remain blocked by maintenance equipment or overgrown shrubbery. At others, burnt-out lights and too-heavy doors have not been replaced. An emergency exit at Congress Heights is locked from the wrong side -- potentially trapping Metro passengers in the tunnel -- and inspectors couldn't get access to another emergency exit at the Pentagon. There's even an exit sign at Capitol South pointing potential evacuees in the wrong direction.
It doesn't take much effort to replace a light bulb, trim shrubbery or move a 55-gallon drum from in front of an emergency exit. Metro's failure to maintain even minimal safety standards is symptomatic of a bloated bureaucracy that spends billions of dollars but is unaccountable to anyone. In 2010, at a three-day hearing on the Red Line crash, former NTSB Managing Director Peter Goelz warned that Metro has no incentive to improve its safety procedures. "It's not like an airline and you can ground them," he pointed out. But that may be the only thing that gets Metro management's attention.