August 13, 2013

WASHINGTON (Aug. 13)—Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph C. Szabo today reassured U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) that his agency will tighten up its safety oversight of the Chicago area’s Metra commuter-rail system while the agency deals with an ongoing crisis at its board and senior-management levels..

Durbin, a former railroad employee from a railroad family in East St. Louis, wrote the FRA administrator August 6 asking that the FRA exercise additional oversight over the safety of Metra operations until the crisis is resolved.

Four of Metra’s 11 directors, including Board Chairman Brad O’Halloran, have resigned in the wake of charges that they approved a $718,000 discharge settlement for former Metra Exec. Dir. Alex Clifford. The remaining seven board members total one member short of the quorum required to select a new chairman and to approve a new executive director, leaving the agency in a state of managerial paralysis.

“I know the professional, non-political staff at Metra is dedicated to running this railroad in the safest way possible,” Durbin wrote in his August 6 letter to Szabo, “however the lack of permanent leadership at the Board and management levels creates a situation where accountability is hard to find and priorities like safety could become neglected.”

Durbin said in the absence of firm leadership from the board and management levels, FRA oversight is appropriate and necessary.

“The Federal Railroad Administration is the ultimate authority regarding the safety of Metra, and I believe it is critical for you to raise your oversight of Metra to a new level while it goes through the transition,” the senator wrote.

Szabo agreed, telling Durbin in an August 13 letter:

“Although FRA inspection results to date show that Metra continues to be a safe and efficient operation—a credit to the career professionals who consistently execute a service-oriented, safety-focused culture of reliable service—I agree with your call to be proactive.”

Although Durbin did not specify what steps he expected the FRA to take in tightening its oversight of Metra, the agency laid out its own 7-point program in a closely-spaced one-and-one-half-page response accompanying the letter to Durbin..

1. Administrator Szabo has opened his own direct dialogue with Metra Deputy Exec. Dir. Donald A. Orseno, who also serves as the agency’s chief operating officer.

2. FRA Region 4 Administrator Mike Long will hold weekly safety meetings with Orseno to review safety issues revealed through FRA inspections or communications from Metra’s labor unions.

3. FRA Region 4 leadership will engage labor leaders and rank-and-file to stimulate awareness of safety issues and methods for resolving them.

4. FRA Region 4 representatives will attend Metra’s monthly labor-management safety meetings.

5. FRA inspectors will increase the number of on-train inspections, including cab rides and observation of the train crew, to ascertain the level of crew familiarity with the Operating Rules, the train equipment and the operating environment.

6. FRA inspectors will increase their oversight of the surprise field tests Metra supervisors use to test crew familiarity with signals and the Operating Rules. FRA will ensure Metra supervisors are familiar with the Operating Rules and trained to manage crews properly.

7. The FRA Region 4 administrator will participate in bi-monthly meeting of the Chicago Operating Rules Association (CORA) and with Metra’s senior rules director to review operational and safety rules that impact Metra and the other railroads with which Metra shares trackage or crosses trackage in the Chicago Terminal District.

“These are wise and prudent measures that I believe all Metra employees and all Metra riders will welcome, and on behalf of our union’s employees at Metra I would like to thank Sen. Durbin for his prompt and measured intervention in the unfortunate scenario that has enveloped Metra,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Robert W. Guy.

Guy said that even though no serious safety violations or accidents have surfaced at Metra since the board scandal broke out more than a month ago, history suggests that any further delay might amount to asking for trouble.

“The transportation industry is replete with examples of locking the barn door after the horse has escaped,” he said. “The recent rail accidents in Quebec, Spain and Switzerland should remind us that the safety culture of a railroad can degrade swiftly but almost imperceptibly when employees sense that management is not firmly engaged on all issues.”

When that happens, Guy said, somebody else has to assume responsibility.

“Rail employees and passengers are entitled to a total 24/7 commitment to safety from the railroad’s management, and if the attention of management and board is diluted by resignations or diverted by questionable behavior, it is entirely appropriate and necessary for the federal government to step in and provide the safety commitment until the corporate-governance issues are resolved,” he said.

Guy said the need for outside backup is particularly urgent when a vacuum opens up at the chief executive officer and board chairman levels.

“When nobody knows where the buck stops, the buck just keeps traveling until discipline unravels,” Guy said. “It’s a sad and simple fact of organizational life.

“I’m glad Sen. Durbin acted, and I’m glad Administrator Szabo responded,” Guy said. “Thanks to their actions, we’re all going to have to work a little harder, but we’re all going to rest a lot easier too.”