WASHINGTON (AP) -- Employees of Washington's Metro transit agency have become more comfortable reporting safety lapses through a program that allows them to do so anonymously, but some are still reluctant to speak out because they fear retribution, a union leader said Wednesday.
The union official's comments came as federal investigators examined Metro's efforts to enhance safety in the second day of a hearing about a fatal electrical malfunction in January. One subway passenger died and more than 80 others were sickened by smoke after a problem with the electrified third rail caused a train to fill with smoke inside a tunnel.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the Jan. 12 malfunction and other failures that exacerbated the danger to passengers, who were forced to wait more than 30 minutes before firefighters arrived. A final report is not expected until next year.
Much of Wednesday's testimony focused on Metro's "Close Call" program, which launched in 2013 and allows employees to report safety problems anonymously. James Madaras, a safety officer with the union representing Metro workers, said employees have taken 18 months to warm to the program because they feared discipline, but he and Metro officials said calls have been on the rise.
"They had this misconception that if they reported something that somehow it would find their way back disciplinarily to them," he said.
Madaras said lapses reported through the program should never lead to discipline unless they are criminal in nature. That earned him a rebuke from NTSB member Robert Sumwalt, who said employees should be sanctioned for willful violations of safety rules.
"It might be good to go to school on what a just culture involves," Sumwalt said.
Metro's interim general manager, Jack Requa, told reporters during a break in the proceedings that safety on the system had improved overall since the fatal malfunction. Deputy general manager Rob Troup said during Wednesday's testimony that the system had not received any political pressure to prioritize on-time performance ahead of safety, and Requa acknowledged that passengers will be inconvenienced more often as the nation's second-largest transit system makes needed repairs.
"It is safe, but we're going to make it safer," Requa said.
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