Dr. Loren Groff at the NTSB.
The NTSB’s meeting on the 2009 Red Line Crash continued this afternoon with even more troubling revelations. They also criticized the Board’s lack of safety oversight, which seems unfair for before the crash, but the Board does need to step up now that they know there are problems.
WMATA top management seems to have tragically ignored safety warnings and potential problems for years. The systems generated 8000 “alarms” from track circuit errors per week, but according to the NTSB, WMATA safety officials ignored these problems because they assumed the system was “failsafe.”
Some train operators were instructed to run their trains on manual because there were problems with automatic operation, and operators were being punished for delays.
However, NTSB staff also blamed the Board for not doing more on safety. NTSB member Robert Sumwalt also repeatedly brought up the Board’s role during questioning. According to one presentation by Loren Groff, they felt the Board should have not only asked tough questions of top management, but gone around them to conduct their own investigations into the safety operation of the organization.
That seems unrealistic. It’s probably true the Board could have asked more tough questions. They could have commissioned an Inspector General’s report. But they asked safety questions of the General Manager and got what seemed like satisfactory answers.
According to the NTSB discussion, the Board asked the General Manager to explain the top safety incidents and what was being done about them. The Board sees itself as a policy-making body, and doesn’t meddle in day to day operations. Asking the GM for a safety summary seems like the right approach. If the GM’s summary was misleading, it would be nice if Board members had psychically divined this, but it’s hard to see how exactly they could have.
Sumwalt also criticized the way the WMATA Board has a committee on Customer Service, Operations, and Safety. “We at the NTSB only focus on safety,” he said, “but that committee has to balance customer service with safety.” Yes. It should. Customer service and safety are both important. The NTSB may have the luxury of ignoring everything but safety, but that doesn’t mean that boards or agencies can do so.
The Board could have constantly asked the General Manager what the agency was doing to comply with NTSB recommendations, said Groff. But we know that many of those recommendations were financially unrealistic. The NTSB members might wish that everyone spent all their time sitting around and only worrying about safety and nothing else, but that’s not how it works in reality.
Another NTSB member noted that in a hearing,
Board Chairman Peter Benjamin previous Board Chairman Jim Graham said he hadn’t heard of the Tri-State Oversight Committee before the crash, though then-General Manager John Catoe was well aware of it. But few of us out in the public had heard of it either. The TOC, by all accounts, operated in obscurity and for some strange reason didn’t feel it could talk to the Board or the public.
We were all ignorant of the safety problems before the crash. Now, following investigations, it’s clear that there were many organizational problems within WMATA, and the TOC wasn’t functioning properly. I wish that the Board or other leaders had found out and fixed it, but it’s hard to throw stones at leaders who only knew what we knew, and we didn’t know about the problem.
The fault lies with General Manager Catoe and the safety officials at WMATA. Now, knowing this was such an issue, the Board does have a responsibility to ensure it gets fixed. Now, the Board should delve more deeply into the progress the agency is making on safety. Now, they shouldn’t be satisfied with vague answers from management.
And now, if future crashes happen that could have been prevented, it would be fair to blame the Board if they don’t take adequate action. I’m not sure that stepped-up level of oversight is happening. The NTSB said that even today, the Board doesn’t claim responsibility for safety. They’re right that this should change. It should start now.
Update: I’ve revised the headline and intro paragraph to reflect some further thoughts on what the Board needs to do going forward.