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Changing the Safety Culture in Public Transportation

Chief Operating Officer
Los Angeles Metro
The Wathen Group
Morristown, NJ

Los Angeles Metro is the fastest-growing ­public transit system in North America. It has broad community support, evidenced by the recently approved $120 billion referendum to plan, build, operate and maintain an expanded network in Los Angeles County.

Metro runs four light rail and two heavy rail lines built by agency and external construction authorities over a period of 25-plus years. By nature, the network has differences in operating characteristics and technologies and, thus, challenges.

As Metro continues to rehabilitate and expand this network, it is imperative to ensure that our employees are well trained, performing safely and engaged in the renewal process.In that spirit, the agency conducted an audit of its operational safety for the burgeoning rail system, identifying technical and procedural improvements to make across multiple disciplines and departments and create a stronger safety culture.

While completing the report, key Metro executives joined APTA’s recent study mission to Asia, which focused on safety culture and asset management at some of the world’s top public transportation organizations. Key takeaways from Asia have reinforced Metro’s change in organizational mindset to commit to “continuous improvement,” a principle found so deeply embedded in the organizational and operational cultures in Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo.

Systems there are able to identify the onset of complacency, to see the problem before it occurs. At Metro, embracing continuous improvement is the key component of our follow-on effort so this concept is recognized, understood and practiced agency-wide.

Metro is adopting the following key principles observed during the study mission to Asia:

* An effective organizational culture shapes operating performance and safety records. For example, MTR in Hong Kong breaks silos by assigning the leadership team to both line and traditional staff functionality and responsibility. This approach ensures operations’ perspectives are integrated in the ongoing management of line and support functions.

Metro created multi-discipline teams to work through the safety culture report and leverage multidisciplinary thinking. Top executives in operations and support departments helped implement these changes, reviewing and ranking the audit report recommendations and creating robust work plans to address the report recommendations. More than 50 people are now involved, conducting weekly meetings and delivering monthly reports to an inter-departmental leadership steering committee.

* Communications and employee engagement are critical for a high level of customer service, safety and productivity. Rather than working in silos, Metro is making communication across traditional departmental lines a key personal performance dimension and developing an employee communications campaign identifying how input is valued and important to the safety culture effort. This is consistent with what was observed in the Asian transit systems: a synergetic, communicative organization with strong performance metrics for on-time service, but also for safety and other dimensions.

* Clarity of responsibility and accountability are paramount to a robust safety culture. Metro is reviewing and revising a number of rail operating rules and procedures to reduce confusion for employees. For example, Metro had two methods to dispatch a train at certain terminal locations, which created chaos for rail personnel. Metro has since updated that rule, communicated the change in procedure to all rail front-line staff and other affected staff and departments, and provided additional training as necessary.

As Metro continues its major service expansion in the region, it is also focusing on cultural changes to strengthen its operational performance. Metro is drawing upon its employees to provide continuous improvement and hopes this broader involvement across disciplines and work units will begin to create a more multidisciplinary and integrated process for decision-making across our operation.

Changing safety culture is a top priority for Metro. It is our responsibility to continuously improve our safety culture and provide excellent service and support in all areas, from changing SOPs at the frontline level to ensuring our mega projects are fully coordinated and delivered with efficiency. As the largest expansion and improvement program in Metro history progresses, this safety culture initiative will help Metro build an overall safer working environment for our customers, partners and employees and represents an unprecedented opportunity for everyone at Metro to continue to impact and shape the future of LA County.

"Commentary" features points of view from various sources to enhance readers' broad awareness of themes that affect public transportation.
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