Economy

Federal crackdown on DC’s subway system likely coming

The National Transportation Safety Board holds a hearing on June 23, 2015, on a tunnel fire in Washington’s Metro subway system. NTSB has recommended more federal safety oversight of Metro.
The National Transportation Safety Board holds a hearing on June 23, 2015, on a tunnel fire in Washington’s Metro subway system. NTSB has recommended more federal safety oversight of Metro.

The National Transportation Safety Board made an “urgent call” Wednesday for federal regulators to take over safety oversight of the subway system in the nation’s capital, which has been beset by a series of accidents and safety problems in the past several years.

The call by the NTSB to increase federal oversight of the 106-mile Metro system suggests that its safety problems go even deeper than is publicly known.

The NTSB has investigated 11 accidents on the Metro system since 1982 that have killed 18 people, including Metro passengers and employees.

Safety oversight of Metro currently falls to the Federal Transit Administration and a local oversight board whose members are drawn from the three jurisdictions in which Metro operates: the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.

However, those agencies have very little real enforcement authority. The transit administration counts on state agencies to carry out the agency’s safety mission, including the Tri-State Oversight Committee that governs Metro. Neither agency can issue penalties.

The Federal Railroad Administration inspects Amtrak and commuter rail systems, enforces compliance with federal safety rules and can administer civil penalties, but the agency has no direct oversight over Metro.

In a safety recommendation letter sent Wednesday to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart urged the department to seek authority from Congress to regulate Metro as a commuter authority, bringing it under the jurisdiction of the Federal Railroad Administration.

“The FRA has rules today. The TOC has none,” Hart said, referring to the local oversight committee. “The FRA has hundreds of highly trained professional railroad inspectors. The TOC has no inspectors.”

11 Number of accidents on Metro the NTSB has investigated since 1982

Jack Requa, Metro’s interim general manager, said in a statement that while the NTSB’s recommendation was directed not directed to Metro, “we are continuing to work every day to address recommendations we have received previously from the NTSB and other oversight agencies.”

NTSB held a hearing in June on a January fire that trapped hundreds of passengers on a disabled train in a smoke-filled tunnel. One passenger died of smoke inhalation.

Through the hearing, NTSB said it found little improvement in Metro’s safety oversight since a June 2009 crash that killed nine people, the worst accident since the system began operations in 1976.

In its letter to Foxx, the NTSB also expressed alarm about a track defect in a tunnel that led an August derailment. The defect, where the rails had spread too far apart, was detected a month earlier by a track inspector but not repaired, nor did Metro require trains to operate at reduced speeds over that section of track.

Though no passengers were aboard the derailed train, the incident occurred near the same point between two stations under the National Mall where a January 1982 derailment killed three passengers, Metro’s first fatal accident.

In a statement Wednesday, DOT Press Secretary Namrata Kolachalam called Metro’s safety record “unacceptable” and said the department “is exploring all options to improve this record, including a range of approaches that will allow us to directly increase Federal safety oversight of Metro.”

With about 869,000 weekday riders, Metro is the second-busiest heavy-rail subway in the country behind New York’s MTA. Were it classified as a commuter rail system instead, it would rank as the busiest.

This post has been updated with comment from Metro’s interim general manager.

         

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis

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