In the face of repeated safety tragedies, a hyper-critical National Transportation Safety Board report, and general customer uneasiness, Secretary Foxx’s recent decision to have the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) assume direct supervision of DC Metro’s safety program should not have been surprising. Metro’s high-profile shortcomings have become an almost endless source of frustration amongst its riders, as reflected in daily social media outbursts.
This almost unprecedented action comes at a time when the FTA is finalizing an important rulemaking that will create a safety program inside the agency and mandate all transit agencies to adopt some form of a Safety Management System (SMS) for operations around the country.
But can a federal takeover and a new regulatory regime create a fundamental culture shift inside a transit agency? In short, the answer is no.
First, any sort of cultural reform demands leadership. DC Metro has been unable to hire a new General Manager for well over a year. Joshua Shank, President of the Eno Center for Transportation, bluntly told the Washington Post last month: “Oh, God, that’s sad.” That might be an understatement. Every Metro employee must understand that they will be held accountable for safety failures and that only comes from a clear and direct mandate from the top. A Metro General Manager must be hired immediately.
Second, even assuming the presence of clear leadership, the culture of safety compliance must be reinforced every day, with employees at all levels of the agency empowered to understand and report potential issues to management. In far too many situations, employees fear their warnings will be ignored, or worse, that they will suffer reprisal for pointing out an issue that could result in system delays or require the expenditure of funds to be fixed. While not all complaints will reveal a serious safety concern, all complaints must be taken seriously.
Third, the anticipated implementation of an SMS will be effective only if an agency adopts a prompt and transparent auditing and reporting process. Outside inspections are necessary, and can be especially impactful when conducted unannounced. Considering that the FTA supervises approximately 1800 grantees (ranging from the MTA in New York to the smallest bus system on Native American lands), it is impossible for the agency’s inspectors to be all places at all times. Internal inspections must be given the same weight as a visit from a federal regulator.
Fourth, adoption of a strong safety culture should be accompanied by a clear sense of risk identification and management. A transit agency must take stock of all its safety challenges and prioritize those issues that present the greatest risk of system failure or threats to its ridership. Again, transparency will help ensure the integrity and legitimacy of this process. When a track defect on Metro’s Blue, Orange and Silver Lines had been detected over the summer, experts said it should have resulted in an immediate shut down of that section of rail. Instead, trains kept running until a derailment severely interrupted service but, thankfully, did not result in any serious injuries. How such a defect did not rise to the top of the system’s safety priorities is indefensible and most likely led to Secretary Foxx’s decision.
I’m a 30-year veteran of Metro’s Red Line. I’ve seen service decline steadily over my time in Washington, DC and Maryland. While I can tolerate more crowded platforms and cars, and even longer waits between trains, I can’t accept a daily commute that puts me and my fellow riders at risk. We turn to mass transit instead of our cars in large part because of the perception of greater safety riding on the train or on a bus. If that trust erodes, one of the main selling points of using public transportation is threatened, perhaps irreparably.
FTA’s supervision of Metro’s safety program will be temporary. Metro’s shift to a culture of safety and compliance must be permanent.