After more than 40 years in the transit industry with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Amtrak and most recently executive director of New Jersey Transit, Richard Sarles was ready to retire. And he did retire. Briefly.
When the interim assignment came up to lead the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro), Sarles saw it as an opportunity to bring his experience to WMATA.
“I thought it would be a year at the most, maybe six or nine months in reality,” Sarles says. “The first several months were pretty trying,” he stresses.
A $189 million budget gab, the National Transportation Safety Board was on site, the memorial service for the victims from the June 22 collision, and he had hearings before subcommittees and Congress within the first few months in the post.
“WMATA is in many respects the leader here in terms of being in front of Congress all the time,” Sarles explains. “When they think of public transportation, especially subways, they think of WMATA. What goes on here is symbolic for the rest of the country.”
Knowing it would be short-term, he says he came to D.C. to see what he could do to put some foundation blocks in place.
As these foundation blocks started to take shape, Sarles says, “I saw the organization and many good people in the organization responding to this and actually wanting to move a step in the right direction.
“As it came to the end of the calendar year, I looked around and said I’m actually enjoying this,” he says. “When you have supportive and good people around you … the will was there in the organization to do it.”
Sarles liked the progress that was being made in the short-term and wanted to stay on for the challenge and on January 27 of this year was unanimously confirmed as general manager/CEO of Metro by the Metro board of directors.
Sarles says, “I liked the people, I thought the people wanted to get the job done and I’m going to be here for a few years to help move in that direction.”
Walking in the door of Metro, Sarles says there was a lot of negative press because of the accident, because of a lack of maintenance, a lack of reliability and because of the way the organization was set up in how it was structured.
The No. 1 priority from the time Sarles initially came on is safety. Just prior to Sarles starting, Metro had hired a new chief safety officer and the reporting relationship so that the chief safety officer reports directly to Sarles.
“We set about strengthening that safety department, bringing additional people in, people with rail experience behind them.” He continues, “A lot of very experienced personnel came into the organization; we brought fresh eyes to the organization.”
They also worked with the operating departments to get input from the employees on safety concerns. The new safety organization structure within Metro ensures that there will be communications from the employees in terms of their needs and concerns right up to an executive safety committee.
With the new structure, people from the safety department are embedded in the operating units so they’re out there in the garages, they’re out at the terminals; their presence is always there.
Sarles says they also ensured employees knew they could report concerns without the fear of retribution and they are working with the union on close-call reporting to set up a safety measurement system. This is all geared toward not only preventing accidents, but identifying hazards through analysis of data and feedback.
“There’s a major push to really change the safety culture here,” Sarles stresses. “We’ve set that in place and we have to stay on it.”
He says they also embraced every one of the National Transportation Safety Board’s recommendations, including ordering new cars from Kawasaki to replace the cars there were of concern in terms of age and crash energy management. “The board committed to spending a billion dollars initially on responding to NTSB recommendations and those things are on the way.”