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Metro G.M.: 'This system is safe'

Wednesday - 7/22/2009, 11:36am  ET

The scene of a rush-hour collision between two Metro trains in June. (AP)
WASHINGTON - Metro's general manager says he'll stake his reputation on the safety of the subway system after The Washington Post reported that track circuit problems are widespread.

"I would assure you and I would assure this public. If at any time I thought this system was unsafe, I will personally issue the order to shut it down," John Catoe said at a Tuesday news conference called after the newspaper report came out. "This system is safe."

Catoe says the newspaper report that at least a half-dozen track circuits have failed to detect the presence of trains in recent weeks is wrong. Catoe called the report a "gross misrepresentation of the facts" and said the reporters did not understand the information and misreported it.

Catoe says he spoke with National Transportation Safety Board member Debbie Hersman about the news account.

"She was taken aback and was as shocked as I was of the information that was reported in The Washington Post. That was a disservice to this region and to this community, putting unnecessary fear into the hearts of our customers after a great tragedy."

As the NTSB investigates the cause the June 22 Metro crash that killed nine, Metro has been conducting computerized tests twice a day on the system. Those tests are ones the transit agency used to run every 30 days. Now they are run after every rush hour.

During the testing the NTSB has been in the field with Metro.

"They (NTSB investigators) would not allow this system to operate if they had any feelings that it was unsafe," Catoe says.

Any deviation in testing is followed up immediately, Catoe says. The circuits have been within safety parameters, but tweaks have been made.

"We've found circuits that in our judgment are not calibrated correctly. We either took those circuits out or made adjustments to those circuits," he said.

"We are at a point that we want to make sure everything in this system is safe," Catoe says. "That means we would go beyond the normal maintenance. When you go beyond the normal maintenance, people sometimes mistake that for a problem."

Catoe says when Metro tested the 3,000 circuits, it adjusted three circuits, but not because they were not working.

"We wanted to adjust the parameters of those circuits' abilities to detect the trains that were on the system."

Catoe says Metro's look at the system is not guesswork. He says the system is being tested much more deeply than it ever has.

"I will not take any chance whatsoever on the safety of our customers. If there is any small adjustment that needs to be made, my directions to our staff, are to do whatever you have to do to absolutely 100 percent assure me that that system is safe."

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