Safety officials urge federal control of DC subway

30 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Federal oversight recommended for Washington’s troubled subway.

U.S. safety regulators on Wednesday recommended urgent federal oversight of Washington’s troubled subway system, which has been plagued by smoky tunnels, breakdowns and deadly accidents. WASHINGTON – The subway in Washington, D.C., is so bad that federal safety investigators are recommending the federal government should take control.The National Transportation Safety Board plans to say in an “urgent” recommendation Wednesday that Metro’s safety problems are so serious and persistent that oversight of the beleaguered subway system should shift from the Federal Transit Administration to a different federal agency, according to people who have been briefed by the NTSB. The NTSB says it found little improvement in the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s safety oversight since the 2009 Metrorail accident in Fort Totten that killed nine people. A June hearing came after repeated recommendations for “immediate action” to ensure electric cables are constructed and installed correctly, to prevent corrosion that sparked fires.

In a statement, the NTSB said testimony at the hearing confirmed that the present oversight body, the Tri-State Oversight Committee, relies on WMATA to respond to any safety concern, finding or recommendation. But the problem is urgent enough that the NTSB recommended Wednesday that the Transportation Department shift oversight for the subway to the Federal Railway Administration, which typically regulates commuter, passenger and freight railways. Unlike the FRA, though, it cannot impose fines, civil actions, or other penalties based on its findings—those have to come from state legislatures (in the District’s case, that means the D.C.

Department of Transportation to seek authority from Congress to designate WMATA a “commuter authority,” so the Federal Railroad Administration can exercise direct safety oversight. We will take this NTSB recommendation into consideration during this process.” “In general, the NTSB investigations of WMATA found that although safety program plans were in place, they were not effectively implemented and overseen,” the NTSB report states. “The frequent safety lapses and subsequent service disruptions experienced by Metro riders are inexcusable and intolerable. At the time federal officials, including then-Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, expressed frustration that a 1965 law prohibiting federal regulation of subways prevented them from taking steps to ensure public safety.

WMATA announced Friday that a transformer fire the previous week at one station would delay trains along the Orange, Blue and Silver lines for months because of reduced power available during the repairs. WMATA must be monitored by an independent authority with the necessary resources to conduct safety inspections and authority to enforce recommendations. Efforts to strengthen its operations have been hampered by an unwieldy structure, which includes members from the District, Maryland and Virginia reporting to different entities. The ongoing NTSB investigation into the Jan. 12 tragedy at L’Enfant Plaza has laid bare the stunning absence of a culture of safety and competence within Metro.

No one was injured in these incidents, but back in January, more than 80 passengers became ill and one died because of a smoke incident near the L’Enfant Plaza station. The NTSB’s findings and recommendations, coupled with those from other federal investigations, demonstrate that Metro is facing monumental challenges that it cannot face alone.

The constant barrage and increasing severity of service disruptions are creating a crisis in commuter and stakeholder confidence and underscores the urgency for Metro to hire a new General Manager with operational experience.” The NTSB also asked for DOT to implement a plan to transition oversight from the TOC to the FRA within six months from the date such authority is granted. NTSB officials noted in their letter that had Metro been subject to FRA oversight and rules, the Aug. 6 derailment of a Green Line train may have been avoided because FRA requirements on track gauge would have forced Metro to shut down that section of track as soon as the defect was identified and would not have allowed it to resume service until a “designated person” determined it was clear. The FRA currently regulates passenger, freight and commuter railroads, including seven urban rail systems in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast U.S. that have been designated as “commuter authorities.” Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia proposed last year that a new body replace the TOC. As it was, it was left to Metro officials to determine whether the track was suitable for use. “Under the current safety oversight structure, the TOC does not have the authority to levy penalties or stop Metrorail revenue service for a track gage problem such as the one that existed for 27 days near the Smithsonian station and resulted in the derailment.

However, even if this new entity were capable of more robust oversight, it could not be stood up for several years, according to a white paper referenced by the jurisdictions. The NTSB recommends the change in oversight because the FRA, unlike the TOC, has robust regulatory and enforcement powers, allowing it to more effectively address hazards and improve the overall safety of WMATA’s rail operations. “The FRA has rules today. While the NTSB believes FRA is positioned to close the safety gap, we look forward to the DOT’s response and their plan to address this urgent safety issue.

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