Safety Board Response To Critics On Delays

5:08 PM, Feb 19, 2010   |    comments
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WASHINGTON, DC (WUSA) -- Seven months after Metro's big crash, the National Transportation Safety Board is finally convening a public hearing next week and some people are asking, "What's taken so long?"

The NTSB outlined the agenda for the hearing a day after one of Metro's top leaders complained about the muzzling of the agency's managers .... and the pace of the federal investigation.

"Why is this taking so long?" a reporter asked NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt. "Well the safety board investigation is a very methodical process." A process that usually takes about a year to report a probable cause. 

But with open speculation that Metro's latest derailment came after a train operator ran two red lights... one board member wonders if it would be better to put a computer back in control of the trains. "And you're telling me you can't comment on that?" Metro Board Member Chris Zimmerman asked General Manager John Catoe on the cause of last weeks derailment. "In general, automatic train operation would block a vehicle from going through a red signal."

Is Metro "safer now under manual train control than they would be under automatic train control?" I asked Sumwalt. His response: "I cannot answer that."

The NTSB hopes to finish its investigation by the first anniversary of the crash that killed nine people. But it's already issued eight urgent safety recommendations. "If we felt there was a particular safety issue that needed to be addressed immediately, we would act on that, and we have," says Sumwalt.

None of the surviving passengers will testify at the hearing. Investigators have already talked to them. But officials do expect some surprises.

Board members plan to look at industries that suffer very few accidents -- commercial airlines, for instance -- and nuclear power plants. "The nuclear power business is one that cannot tolerate any accidents at all. And it's an extremely safe industry," says Sumwalt.

The NTSB is hoping lessons from highly reliable organizations will help boost safety on Metro.

The hearing starts Tuesday with Metro officials are first up in the hot seat.

Written by Bruce Leshan
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