Safety Requires Constant Vigilance

By Debbie Hersman

Chairman Hersman at teh unveiling of the WMATA's new 7000 series railcarOn June 22, 2009, during the afternoon rush-hour, an inbound Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) Metrorail train struck the rear of a stopped Metrorail train near Fort Totten. This wasn’t the first WMATA accident where the NTSB had identified concerns about the crashworthiness of the older cars in the fleet. In fact, it was third – the first accident occurred at Shady Grove in 1996, and the second accident took place at the Woodley Park Station in 2004.

However, the 2009 accident was a watershed moment for WMATA leadership, the policy-makers on Capitol Hill and the commuters that ride Metro every day. The subsequent NTSB investigation revealed a lack of safety culture, ineffective safety oversight by the WMATA Board of Directors and Tri-State Oversight Committee, and lack of federal oversight authority for the Federal Transit Administration. From this investigation, the NTSB issued 19 safety recommendations to WMATA addressing everything from the technical malfunction that caused the train control system to fail to maintain train separation to WMATA’s maintenance programs to necessary steps for creating a stronger safety culture.

WMATA has implemented ten of the 19 recommendations and is working to complete action on the remaining open recommendations. An example of a closed recommendation involves the reconstitution of WMATA’s Standing Safety Executive committee, now the Executive Safety Committee, which meets monthly to review all audits, major accidents, and open corrective action plans as well as any safety concerns arising from departmental level or local safety committee meetings. An example of an open recommendation that remains in progress involves an agreement reached this past summer, between WMATA management and employees, to implement a pilot non-punitive reporting system – this is a positive step in creating a safety culture that encourages communication between employees at all levels without fear of reprisal.

Yesterday, many safety and political leaders, along with the public, had the privilege of seeing WMATA’s most recent railcar design – the 7000 series railcars. This railcar incorporates safety features that were recommended as a result of past NTSB investigations. It includes improved crashworthiness features, exterior emergency door access and crash hardened event recorders. Soon, WMATA will phase out its oldest railcars, the 1000 series, with these more modern railcars, which afford greater protection to the commuters and tourists riding WMATA Metrorail every day. Obtaining the funding for these cars was no small feat and many local and national leaders deserve recognition for making this a reality. The team at Metro often has difficult days, but seeing these new test cars reminds us that in spite of the challenges they face, many different organizations and individuals chose to invest in the safety and reliability of our national transit backbone, reaffirming its value to the entire metropolitan community.

It is human nature to grow comfortable over time with repetitive tasks. Think about the last time you commuted home from work; you may not even remember the trip. Safety, however, requires constant vigilance. The NTSB has seen time and again how transportation providers are literally shocked by accidents and recognize that the cause was really a chain of events tied to a lack of vigilance. Preventing the next accident is the paramount desire, but when tragedy strikes, individuals and organizations have a choice in how they respond. I commend WMATA for engaging in a self-evaluation process and choosing to take productive action to address identified shortcomings.

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