NTSB makes ‘urgent’ plea for federal oversight of DC Metro

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is issuing an “urgent” recommendation for expanded federal oversight of the Metrorail subway system in Washington, D.C. after a series of safety lapses this year.

The NTSB is calling for the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to take over regulation of the beleaguered Metro system, which has been under fire for most of the year following the death of a passenger on a smoke-filled train in January.

{mosads}The capital-area subway system is currently overseen by a Tri-State Oversight Committee composed of officials from Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia. The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) also has a limited role in overseeing Metro, but public transit has been seen as a local issue in most cases.

The NTSB said Tuesday that local regulation is insufficient for the D.C. Metro’s problems, however.  

“There is now a lack of independent safety oversight of Metrorail,” NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said in a statement. “This is an unacceptable gap in system safety.”

The NTSB is calling on the Department of Transportation to identify the D.C. Metro system as a “commuter railroad” instead of a public transit system, which would allow the FRA to regulate the agency.

That move would be a big departure for the FRA, which normally oversees Amtrak and other commuter railways.

The NTSB said it is making the recommendation because it has investigated 11 incidents on the Metro in the last 33 years that involved a total of 18 fatalities.

“Many of the NTSB investigations determined that WMATA’s inadequate management of its operation contributed to the events, and based on the repeated and ongoing deficiencies identified during its investigations of accidents and incidents involving WMATA, the NTSB concludes that the TOC cannot perform effective safety oversight of the WMATA rail system,” the agency said in a letter to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

“Without adequate oversight, accidents and incidents will continue to place the riders of the WMATA system at risk,” the agency continued. “The NTSB therefore proposes that the DOT seek the authorization under 45 USC Section 1104 to classify WMATA as a commuter authority, thus placing WMATA under the regulatory authority of the FRA.”

The FTA has already recommended a list of nearly 80 safety fixes for the agency that operates the D.C. Metro system, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), after its investigation of the January incident. Metro has committed to completing the fixes and said the FTA has signed off on its plan.

The NTSB said Tuesday that the railroad administration “has established and developed robust inspection, oversight, regulatory, and enforcement authority and conducts regular safety compliance inspections of railroads” to hold Metro accountable, however. 

Investigators have said a faulty insulator on the subway tracks was responsible for the January incident. The insulator generated too much heat for the train, which was heading toward Northern Virginia on Metro’s Yellow Line. Passengers were trapped underground in smoke-filled cars while emergency personnel tried to reach them.

The incident resulted in Metro’s first passenger fatality since a crash on the Red Line in 2009 that killed nine people and led to widespread changes at the transit agency.

Lawmakers who represent parts of Maryland and Virginia where Metro operates agree that it is time for the federal government to step in to protect riders of the system.

“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,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said in a statement.

“The fortunes of the federal government and Metro are inherently linked,” he continued. “The federal government must play a more active role in providing the necessary oversight and resources to address these challenges.”

Connolly added that “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.”

— This story was updated at 2:26 p.m.

Tags Anthony Foxx D.C. Metro Federal Railroad Administration FRA Gerry Connolly Metrorail National Transportation Safety Board NTSB Washington Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority
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