NTSB Crash Investigation Clears Train Operator, Illuminates Oversight Patchwork

Documents released today as part of the National Transportation Safety Board's hearings on the fatal D.C. Metro crash last summer highlight a patchwork approach to oversight at the agency, but lay to rest accusations that the operator of the striking train was on her cell phone at the time of the crash. The June 22 crash killed 9 passengers and injured more than 80.

Cell phone records for Jeanice McMillan's phone indicate that only one of the 20 calls she made or received that day could have been made during her shift, and the NTSB says the train operator was not operating the train when she made that phone call 43 minutes before the crash. It is against Metro policy for operators to use cell phones.

Tuesday's hearings also pointed to a pattern of inconsistent safety oversight at WMATA, the agency that operates the metro rail system in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.

According to testimony, the chief safety officer of the organization directly reported to a revolving door of managers, from the agency's auditor general, to the chief administrative officer, before finally reporting to the agency's general manager, John Catoe, after the fatal crash. Catoe now plans to leave the agency in April.

"There was not a direct reporting relationship until after June 22," acknowledged Catoe. "But ultimately, every WMATA employee is responsible for safety and I have the responsibility for safety."

Documents show that the operator of the train which was hit June 22 had three reprimands and two suspensions since 2003. The last reprimand occurred one month before the accident. The operator was also removed from service in August of 2008 for manually stopping his train during station stops. At the time, trains were supposed to be automatically operated. Now the NTSB has ordered manual operation as a safety precaution because the automatic system did not detect the stopped train.

At one point, NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt asked the acting deputy general manager for WMATA, David Kubicek, how he would characterize the safety culture at the agency.

"Do you have a culture where employees will freely report safety concerns?," asked Sumwalt.

"Yes I do…I have an open door policy," replied Kubicek.

"Is there an atmosphere of trust at the WMATA organization?," queried Sumwalt.

"I'm not going to say 100 percent. I do think there are some people who are more comfortable with others. That's just part of what we're trying to change," said Kubicek.

In reviewing the oversight mechanisms for metro this week, the NTSB aims to determine whether state and local regulation of metro rail are sufficient. Congress is already working on a bill to allow the secretary of transportation to develop national safety standards. Currently, each state sets its own.

Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) has drafted a bill to do so.

"We have standards for everything in transit but not safety or crashworthiness of these cars," she said on the Senate floor Tuesday.

"Rail transit is the only one without (federal) standards, oversight or enforcement."

Peter Benjamin, chair of the Metro Transit Board of Directors, seemed to leave the door wide-open, adding that the agency has already contacted the Department of Transportation to help WMATA reform its safety procedures.

"What we have been doing is not what we can continue to do," he said. "What we need to do is much more substantial — a change in the basic culture towards safety within our organization."

Click here to watch live video of the hearing from MyFoxDC.com.