An ongoing safety initiative by the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and Metrolink, the regional rail commuter system serving Southern California, led to a two-day class that brought together academic experts and rail system executives who collaborated on a problem-solving format.
The format evolved out of months of planning discussions between Metrolink chief executive officer John Fenton, system safety manager Fred Jackson, executive consultant Jim Schultz and USC Viterbi director of professional programs Candace House, among others.
During the class, which was titled “Rail System Safety: Safety Culture and Human Performance,” Jackson and senior Metrolink supervisors, operators and experts assembled at Olin Hall, where they examined a series of disasters, collisions and equipment failures in systems across the country.
It was “an absolute must for anyone working in the industry,” said Metrolink’s Rick Gallant, “and I’ve been in the industry for 41 years.”
Three USC Viterbi faculty members with academic and engineering expertise in the field led the Metrolink representatives’ examinations. Najmedin Meshkati, Tom Anthony and Greg Placencia focused on the ways in which failure scenarios developed out of defects in institutional safety cultures.
Safety culture is a concept that Meshkati has developed for years in the context of accidents in complex technological systems such as nuclear reactors, oil refineries, air operations centers and offshore drilling platforms.
The class, House emphasized, was not aimed at giving individuals certificates or degrees. Instead, it was designed to improve the performance of Metrolink’s overall institution.
Analyzing a train crash in Northern California, Meshkati and Placencia used the accident as a takeoff point to discuss how poor safety culture led to failure to correct errors – how “one person’s bad scheduling can become death warrants for passengers.”
The analysis included the discussion of the paradoxical role of automation in safety culture: “making bad habits worse and good habits better.”
Another exercise centered on the discussion of a 2009 Metrolink crash involving an operator with persistent professional problems placed under extreme stress by a schedule that left her sleepless, a situation complicated by communication failures, obsolete equipment, organizational problems and lax regulatory oversight.
After the accidents were presented, Metrolink representatives divided themselves into seven teams that drew lessons from the National Transportation Safety Board’s official accident investigation reports. Each team then presented its own analysis to the group.
Metrolink’s Jackson was delighted by the results. “It stimulated so many thoughts,” he said.
One key sign, according to Jackson, was an enthusiastic consensus by Metrolink participants that improvement is possible and that it will take place, he said.
House was equally pleased. “I’m proud to partner with Metrolink,” she said. Ditto for House’s supervisor, Kelly Goulis, the USC Viterbi senior associate dean for graduate and professional programs.
“We have a history of providing educational programs to address safety issues to the aviation industry through our Aviation Safety & Security program,” Goulis said. “We are thrilled to be able to apply this successful model and to develop programs in railway safety for the rail industry.”