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Top Metro Official Resigns In Wake Of Safety Lapse
D.C. board representatives say they have "no confidence" in WMATA

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This story has been updated.

Hours after hearing his office labeled a “paper tiger” too timid to close dangerous holes in Metro’s safety practices, the transit authority’s chief safety officer, James Dougherty, submitted his resignation.

The move came after Metro’s board of directors met in executive session Thursday with interim General Manager Jack Requa. A source with knowledge of the closed-door discussions said board members reached a consensus, signaling to Requa that he would have their full support in whatever personnel decisions might follow.

Pressure to make changes at the top of the transit authority followed a stunning report that revealed the errors leading to the Aug. 6 derailment of an empty train outside Smithsonian station. The Metro board did not give Requa a directive, leaving any personnel decisions to his discretion, the source said. The board sentiment was unsurprising considering the withering criticism it delivered in public just hours earlier.

The source spoke on condition of anonymity because talks in executive session are confidential. In a press release, Requa praised Dougherty’s contributions.

"Under his leadership, WMATA has strengthened our safety training programs and focused on employee and customer injury reductions," the statement said.

Louis Brown, Dougherty's deputy, was appointed to replace him on an interim basis, effective immediately. A Metro spokeswoman said there would be no further comment because "this is a personnel issue."

Metro board signaled “no confidence”

During a special public meeting earlier Thursday, the District of Columbia’s representatives on the board, who include the District’s transportation chief and an appointee of Mayor Muriel Bowser, grilled Dougherty and the transit agency’s top rail engineer, Rob Troup.

Leif Dormsjo, the director of the District Department of Transportation, accused Metro management of having a “bunker mentality,” unwilling to let outside guidance fix its safety problems.

Fellow board member Corbett Price, appointed by the mayor in March, declared he has “absolutely no confidence” in Metro’s safety office, which Dougherty had run since 2010.

“Furthermore, rank and file employees are disciplined when their safety lapses. But yet the management gets a pass,” said Price.

Dormsjo openly questioned Dougherty’s competency.

“It seems to me by your own testimony here today you’ve got next to no information about what goes on at WMATA operationally,” Dormsjo said.

“You don’t even look at the [standard operating procedures]. So what’s the point of having a safety department if you are not deeply embedded in the organization’s operations?” he derisively asked.

“We may not look at the SOPs, but we look at the higher level policies and the change that goes on in the organization and the training manuals,” Dougherty responded.

Dorsmjo interrupted, “Okay, I don’t need to hear your response.”

“The culpable parties are here today”

The board members repeatedly placed Metro management on the defensive, painting them as ultimately responsible for the failings that left a track defect unaddressed for 28 days after it initially was detected during an inspection on July 9. Moreover, the D.C. representatives strongly suggested Troup and Dougherty could lose their jobs.

Before Dougherty’s resignation, two Metro employees — the operator of the track geometry vehicle (TGV) that detected the “wide gauge” defect and his supervisor — had quit. No one was injured when five of six railcars slipped off the tracks on Aug. 6, but service was disrupted for most of the day on the Blue, Orange and Silver lines.

“I take full accountability for the incident,” said Rob Troup, Metro’s deputy general, during a grilling by Dormsjo. But Troup’s explanation of what happened and the steps being taken to prevent a reoccurrence left Dormsjo furious.

The DDOT chief zeroed in not only on the human error that missed the track defect, but the lack of a systematic review process connected to the use of the TGV, underscoring the notion that Metro suffers not from a series of unrelated incidents but from a broken organizational structure and safety culture.

“Who signed off on that process? What is the GM? Was it you, Rob? Did the safety department sign off on that process?” asked Dormsjo.

“The process was internal in the track group,” Troup responded.

Dormsjo did not drop the subject. “Is there an individual within the organization that signed off on the process that had those two fatal flaws built into it Day One? Not Aug. 6, Day One. Yes or no?”

“I do not believe so,” said Troup.

“OK, that’s a problem,” snapped Dormsjo. “So where does the buck stop?”

In remarks to reporters following the meeting, before the board entered closed session, Dormsjo predicted heads may roll.

“The culpable parties are here today. They are in this room. We had interactions with them, and we made it clear where the buck stops,” Dormsjo said.

When Troup was asked by reporters whether he should lose his job, interim General Manager Jack Requa interjected.

“That’s my decision to make, and we are reviewing all the activities related to this incident,” said Requa, who also deflected questions about whether he would fire Dougherty.

Changing explanation

The special board meeting began with a technical presentation on the causes of the mishap from broken rail fasteners that, in turn, caused the tracks to spread too wide.

In its investigative report last week, Metro said the TGV technician mistakenly deleted data on the track defect during the July 9 inspection because he thought it was a routine anomaly or “false positive.” But today Troup contradicted that finding, saying the technician accidentally deleted the data, in effect “hitting the wrong button.”

“We don’t think it was a matter of the technician misinterpreting the data. We just think he erroneously deleted it. It was just a misstep with the button, is what we think,” Troup said.

Whether an error in judgment or accidental deletion, board members focused more intently on the lack of follow-up review of the technician’s report from his TGV inspection run, a dangerous hole in the transit authority’s safety policies that management — Requa, Troup and Dougherty — insisted was being rectified.

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