Two veteran workers on the Washington area's transit system were crushed by a maintenance truck Tuesday, the latest in a string of fatalities that has made Metro the most deadly for U.S. transit rail workers in the past five years.
Eight of the 13 rail transit workers killed in and around tracks since 2005 occurred in the Washington-area system, according to the Federal Transit Administration. And those numbers don't include a June collision that killed a train driver and eight passengers — the worst accident in Metro's 33-year history.
"It seems like we've been doing more investigations of Metro than other transit authorities. Something needs to change," said Mark Rosenker, who until August was chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. "There needs to be a true examination of what is going on. A re-examination of the culture itself."
Last month, the Obama administration asked Congress to give the Federal Transit Administration authority to impose safety standards on subways, light rail and other urban train systems. Current law prohibits the federal government from doing so.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff said the deaths underscore the importance of bringing transit safety legislation to the president's desk.
"It is also unacceptable that FTA is prohibited by law from addressing this problem head on," Rogoff said.
Men were installing safety equipment
The veteran employees — Jeff Garrard, 49, and Sung Oh, 68 — were installing safety equipment on a track that was closed for the night when they were hit. Garrard had worked for Metro since 1990, and Oh had worked there since 1998. Both men lived in Montgomery County, Md.
"From everything we know at this point, this great tragedy was a direct result of human error," said Jim Graham, chairman of the Metro board of directors. He did not give further details.
The men were hit by a special vehicle that can drive on the track when electricity is shut down. NTSB investigator Stephen Klejst said the truck was in reverse, which was not uncommon.
Klejst said it was not clear if the four employees inside the truck were aware of the two men.
He said the NTSB was reviewing recent employee work history and training as well as gathering radio recordings, track work procedures and the weather and lighting at the time of the incident.
Klejst said it will be critical to examine communications between the employees and the control center that oversees Metro's operations. That's been a theme of previous NTSB investigations of Metro workers hit by trains.
Fewer fatalities among some systems
Other transit systems have had far fewer track fatalities in the last five years. The New York City subway — the largest rail transit system in the country — has had three since 2005, though it had a rash of deaths early in the decade. The San Francisco and Sacramento transit systems each have had one, according to the FTA.
Chicago's 225-mile subway and elevated train system, the second largest network in the country, hasn't had a work-related fatality since 2004 — when an employee was fatally injured in a rail yard accident, according to the Chicago Transit Authority. Boston's T had one worker death in 2005 and one in 2008, officials there said, but neither accident was reflected in the FTA statistics.
Metro extends into the suburbs to link the capital with neighboring areas of Maryland and Virginia. It is a vital part of the region's infrastructure and economic fabric and heavily relied on by federal workers.
The agency's general manager, John Catoe, unexpectedly announced his resignation earlier this month. Catoe joined the agency three years ago, pledging to make safety the No. 1 priority.
Before the June crash, Metro went 2½ years without a worker being killed in the rail system. But at the time Catoe took the helm, the agency had seen another spate of worker fatalities. Four employees were fatally struck by trains between October 2005 and November 2006. Before that, Metro had no worker fatalities since 1997.
Metro officials said Tuesday they were taking steps to improve safety for workers and riders.