Photo by Sjixxxy on Flickr.

When WMATA contracted with a consultant to assess its elevator and escalator maintenance, I asked for a copy of the report and was rebuffed.  The Washington Post was as well.  We were both given the PowerPoint summary of the report that WMATA prepared for its Board.

Yesterday, local blog Unsuck DC Metro got its hands on a copy of the report.  Rather than reading the report closely and reporting its analysis, this anti-Metro blog saw warnings in the report about brake issues and drew some damning conclusions

Unsuck DC Metro reported that WMATA knew about, and ignored, problems that caused the October 30th escalator brake failure at L’Enfant Plaza that injured several people. This prompted much Metro bashing and a PR nightmare for Metro. 

The reality, however, is that WMATA didn’t ignore brake warnings. Their mistakes were to keep the report a secret, and to continually avoid a real prioritization of safety fixes.

As WMATA’s press relations made clear in the comment thread, Metro announced on Oct. 14th that it would test the brake issues identified by the consultant in November.

This showcases the folly of WMATA’s consistent practice of refusing to divulge consultant reports that are paid for with taxpayer money, and providing the public PowerPoint summaries instead.  This practice creates the appearance of a cover-up, and undermines credible bloggers and journalists who try to produce thorough and fair accounts of Metro activities.

If WMATA had released the report when Ann Scott Tyson of the Post and I asked for it, yesterday’s flare-up wouldn’t have happened.  Instead, Greater Greater Washington would have provided a fair and thorough assessment of the report.

Now that we have it, how is that report?

Quite simply, the escalator report is not well done.  It doesn’t specify the specific goal of the audit, and ends up being a grab-bag of several findings, many positive and many negative. 

It’s understandable, as a result, why the escalator issues didn’t make it into Sarles’ PowerPoint summary of the report.  If the brake issues were a real concern to the consultant, the report certainly doesn’t reflect that.  They are buried between recommendations for better housekeeping and for better training in the Maintenance Management System. 

Which of the negative findings contribute to downtime?  Which contribute to risk of injury?  What priority should be placed on addressing which findings given their relative contributions to downtime or risk of injury?  None of these questions are remotely answered in the report.

As we said when the audit was completed, Sarles should be able to report to the Board something like this:

We’re at 90% now. We’ve found these internal issues and will fix them. These contribute to (say) 20% of downtime so that will get us to 92%. If we allocate some of our capital dollars to escalator repair, we can get to (say) 96% by addressing additional causes of 40% of downtime.


But this report doesn’t enable Sarles to say anything like this.

This gets to the heart of the real problems facing Metro.  As we have repeated on several occasions, Metro’s fundamental flaw in both maintenance and safety is its inability to proactively prioritize action items based on how much an issue contributes to downtime or risk of injury. 

Instead, Metro creates grab-bags of good ideas, pursues them in no particular order, and then when a major incident occurs reactively spends mountains of money addressing the immediate causes of that incident.  Metro is doing the same here, by now testing the brakes on every escalator in the system.

The recommendations in Vital Signs, the NTSB recommendations and the elevator/escalator recommendations in this report are all unprioritized grab-bags of good, yet unvalidated, ideas for improving performance and safety.

If this feels like less of a smoking gun than the negligence that Unsuck DC Metro is claiming, then email your WMATA Board member asking them if they know what the top 10 causes of downtime and injury are in Metro’s system.  They won’t know. 

That’s a smoking gun.  And it also gets to the real problem, which is what we should be trying to do as bloggers.

I would hope that this prompts Metro to start releasing reports that are procured with taxpayer dollars.  They can start with the Corporate Executive Board survey of Metro workers regarding the safety culture and the Booz Allen Hamilton assessment of the skills needed at Metro to run a hazard management system.

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Ken Archer is CTO of a software firm in Tysons Corner. He commutes to Tysons by bus from his home in Georgetown, where he lives with his wife and son.  Ken completed a Masters degree in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America.