Monday, July 6, 2009

Is Catoe Backing Down?

On June 25, in a Metro press release, GM John Catoe said "we have a safe system."
On July 1, in another press release, he said "the Metrorail system is as safe as it can be."
We asked Metro if anything was to be made of what seems to us a subtle but notable difference in wording, and this was their reply:
"Our system is safe, unfortunately, we cannot provide absolutes, no one can. We do everything practical to reduce risk. As far as we are concerned, when we say our system is 'safe' or 'as safe as it can be' both mean the same thing."
A few days later, in a July 5 column in the Washington Post--a big chance for him to reassure the public--Catoe doesn't give any sort of assessment of Metro's safety, instead, he resorts to sloganeering: "Safety is at the foundation of everything we do."
Is Catoe slowly backing away from his initial assessment of Metro?
What do you think?

Related posts:
Hold them to their words
No way to run a railroad
Who's looking over WMATA's shoulder?
Congratulations Mr. Catoe
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Anonymous said...

The semantics here are really irrelevant. With either wording I think it is a lie. Any system that doesn't alarm when a train exists in one section of track and then disappears in the next section is awful and not "safe" or "as safe as it can be".

Anonymous said...

Try to put yourself in Catoe's position. Hundreds of thousands of people ride Metro to work every day and the daily fatality rate of Metro riders versus, say, Beltway drivers is so low it's absurd. Yet if you asked them whether their highways were "safe," Pierce Homer, Beverley Swaim-Staley and Gabe Klein would all say something similar to what Catoe himself said.

If you expect Catoe to say "safe" and mean "totally immune from all risk," that's unreasonable. I think he's probably meant the same thing all along; that hazards to passenger and employee safety are mitigated to the lowest level practical.

That being said, take a good look at the third person in the photograph- a representative from APTA, the transit industry's lobbying organization. APTA has a broad range of voluntary "standards" for transit safety, which agencies- like Catoe's- are all supposed to be following. But those agencies pay a yearly membership fee to APTA, who in turns goes to bat for them on Capitol Hill, lobbying for more transit spending and- guess what- against stringent safety regulations.

Instead of regulation, APTA promotes these "standards" to Congress as a reasonable substitute for strict federal oversight, or state oversight like you get in California. But here's the dirty little secret; developing an APTA standard is a race to the bottom. The transit industry finds the lowest common denominator of safety, agrees on that as their baseline, promotes it as an "industry standard," and uses it as a distraction to ward off meaningful change.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, no one actually follows the APTA standards in the first place, either.

Let's get Metro Fixed said...

Would like to hear more about the APTA standards if you'd like to share.

Anonymous said...

Check out Section 6, Standard for Signals & Communications Inspections and Maintenance. It's pretty technical and pretty dry, but I bet if you pair these up next to what WMATA is actually doing, you'll see some daylight.

It'd be interesting to ask WMATA's public information folks whether they follow the APTA standards. Of course, they'd say yes; but the question is, how closely? If everybody followed APTA standards to the letter there'd be no accidents. The fact is, there are no APTA Police, and these are a lot easier to blow off than say, the FRA would be.

It's really a cozy little system. Each transit agency pays APTA a hefty chunk of change every year to be a member. In turn, they get to help develop "voluntary standards" and "recommended practices." Then APTA turns around, takes membership money, and spends on wining and dining Congressmen who continue to write big public-transit funding checks and are soothed by the knowledge that rail transit safety is voluntarily self-regulated by the APTA standards.

Then, of course, when something terrible happens, APTA will do something called a "peer review." Your agency pays APTA another chunk of change, and they'll bring some consultants and other people from across transit to assess your system. They'll make a few recommendations, hand you a heavy report, and then walk away. No requirement to follow any of the recommendations. Thanks, APTA!

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