James Dougherty at the scene of a crash. Photo by Streetsblog SF.

Last week, WMATA officially announced that James Dougherty, chief safety officer for San Francisco’s Muni will be taking the job of Chief Safety Officer.

The chief safety officer position at Metro had been vacant since mid-December, when Alexa Dupigny-Samuels was removed from the position in a management shake-up. Metro Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn filled the role in an interim basis while Metro conducted a search.

The WMATA Board has high hopes that Dougherty will provide much needed leadership and stability in the role, which in recent years has seen significant turnover. In 2008, then-General Manager John Catoe appointed Ronald Keele to the position, as part of a previous campaign to bolster safety. Keele had previously worked for Metro, and also served as safety officer for NASA’s Space Shuttle program at the time of the Columbia accident. Keele left Metro shortly thereafter and was replaced in 2009 by Dupigny-Samuels.

It’s been less than a year since the fatal Red Line crash, and subsequent fatal track worker accidents and other crashes have demonstrated there is still much room for safety improvement. All eyes are on WMATA now, as Richard Sarles begins as Interim General Manager. The big question mark is whether Sarles and Dougherty can successfully address the problems with Metro’s “culture of safety.”

Dougherty joined Muni last year, under similar circumstances. The agency has a ridership of around 700,000 daily, and operates light rail, bus, trolleys and cable cars. Muni hired Dougherty amid a campaign to crack down on safety, following a significant increase in accidents involving Muni vehicles.

During his tenure, Muni continued to suffer a string of accidents. To his credit, Dougherty began to implement changes, hoping to instill a better culture of safety within the agency. Since his tenure was less than a year, though, it is difficult to determine what impact he made. According to SF Muni, safety incidents declined during his employment, despite several high profile accidents.

Dougherty’s emphasis on safety, as well as his understanding that a culture of safety is important are encouraging. His prior tenure was at an agency that had eerily similar problems as Metro. This piece about Muni safety in 2009 reads as though it could have been about Metro:

Georgetta Gregory, who manages the consumer protection and safety division of the California Public Utilities Commission, told the supervisors that Muni has made “substantial accomplishments” in the past three years.

"SFMTA has recognized the urgency of promoting a safety culture,” she said. That includes encouraging Muni employees to report safety issues “without fear of reprisal,” she said.

Gregory highlighted improvements to Muni track conditions and record keeping, quicker completion of accident investigations, and safety improvements such as cameras in buses and signal improvements at 4th and King streets, the site of another light-rail injury crash in June 2008.

Gregory said she has assigned three full-time engineers to oversee Muni safety operations, in contrast to the one engineer that is normally assigned to each transit agency.

"Three years ago to today, it is a stark improvement,” Gregory said.

Other recent safety improvements include the addition of more Muni street supervisors, retraining for drivers, and public safety campaigns, Dougherty noted.

We can hope that Dougherty took the job with Metro with the hopes that he can build on his experience at Muni, and not because he was discouraged at the difficulties involved in instilling institutional change. Many of the concerns riders have in San Francisco echo those in DC, especially regarding employee discipline.

At this point it may be too early to tell if this choice will finally cement safety as a high priority at Metro. A recent Washington Post poll showed riders are mostly confident in Metro’s safety, but history and recent events show there is still work to be done.

Dave Stroup is an online organizer and progressive activist. He enjoys public transit, Democratic politics, and rabble-rousing.