House Panel On Metro Hears Pleas for Funds
Witnesses Detail New Safety Efforts

By James Hohmann and Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Metro General Manager John B. Catoe yesterday told a House subcommittee conducting a hearing into last month's deadly Red Line accident that the transit system is preparing a cost estimate for a new fail-safe system and plans to meet with a potential vendor this morning.

His testimony came a day after the National Transportation Safety Board urged Metro to install a backup system for its train controls.

In the 3 1/2 -hour hearing, witnesses answered questions about Metro's safety record and urged Congress to approve $150 million to help maintain the aging system's infrastructure.

Deborah Hersman, an NTSB member, commended Metro officials for quickly pledging to pursue technological fixes that might reduce the likelihood of crashes. Catoe said that putting the NTSB recommendations into effect is his top priority.

But he also noted that investigators have not determined why a circuit on one section of track -- between Takoma and Fort Totten -- continues to malfunction, even though components have been replaced several times.

"I do not know yet what we need to do," Catoe said. "At times, it does not detect a train there."

That, he said, is why Metro is continuing to run one train at a time between Takoma and Fort Totten.

Catoe rattled off safety precautions Metro has taken since the crash: Operators are running trains manually. Older cars have been moved to the middle of trains. Metro officials are preparing for an independent review of the signaling system. Engineers are running daily computerized tests on track circuits.

The NTSB said Monday that those daily tests are insufficient. A letter to Metro said that the system needs a real-time monitoring backup so that operators and downtown controllers can detect all the trains on the track at all times. Federal investigators also say the train protection system they consider inadequate would be problematic regardless of whether trains are operating in automatic or manual control.

Hersman compared the real-time system that the NTSB called on Metro to develop to technology that warns air traffic controllers when an airplane's altitude is dangerously low or that alerts pipeline engineers when pressure in a part of a pipe changes rapidly.

Catoe declined to estimate how much a new system would cost or how long it would take to design and implement. A Metro spokeswoman said later that the agency would meet with one vendor today and would contact others.

In a separate interview, Bill Petit, an independent consultant on signaling and train control, estimated that such a backup system would cost millions of dollars and take "years and years" to design, test and integrate into Metro's existing systems. A backup system would most likely look at inputs from track circuits, which detect the presence of trains, and evaluate where trains are before allowing a following train to proceed. Petit said he disagreed with the safety board's recommendation, arguing that such a solution should be deferred until investigators pinpoint the cause of the crash.

Much of the testimony at the hearing on the June 22 crash involved Metro's request for $150 million in federal funding in the next fiscal year. The pleas for funding spotlighted Metro's long-standing struggle to secure a steady stream of revenue.

"Metro appears to be in the throes of an epic crisis," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who held up his SmarTrip card as evidence that he regularly uses the system.

Metro is the only major transit agency in the United States without a source of dedicated funding, such as a portion of a sales or gas tax. It is the country's second-busiest rail system, and its capital needs have grown tremendously. Tunnels leak. Crumbling station platforms are held up with two-by-fours. More than a fourth of the rail car fleet is more than 30 years old and needs to be replaced.

Last year, Congress authorized spending as much as $1.5 billion over 10 years for capital improvements and preventive maintenance. The legislation required Virginia, Maryland and the District to match the federal money from dedicated funding sources, putting $3 billion within reach.

The three jurisdictions took the necessary legislative action this year to match the money. But President Obama's first budget failed to include the federal government's initial share of $150 million, as several Republicans pointed out. The region's congressional delegation has pressed hard for the funds. Late Monday, the House appropriations subcommittee on transportation took an important first step by approving the $150 million. The action must still be approved by the full committee and the full House and the Senate.

Metro officials and allies of the system argued that getting the funding is critical to the system's future. They said Metro is entitled to special treatment because so many federal employees and tourists use it.

"We want to learn from this," said Tom Davis, a retired Republican congressman from Virginia who pushed for last year's $1.5 billion authorization and testified at the hearing in support of increased federal support. "We don't want this to happen again."

The head of the Federal Transit Administration, Peter M. Rogoff, complained that the U.S. Department of Transportation lacks sufficient authority to mandate fixes at Metro and other public transit systems. Rogoff told lawmakers that the Obama administration hopes to announce policy changes to address what he called a "gap in transit safety oversight" in a few weeks.

"We find the status quo to be unacceptable, and we expect to propose reforms," he said.

One of the witnesses who testified was Patrick Tuite, a passenger in the second car of the striking train June 22. But he wasn't in the room when his turn to speak came. The Catholic University associate professor arrived an hour after the hearing started. He said he had decided to try taking the train for the first time since the accident.

Under oath, he said that he left his home in Kensington at 12:37 p.m. for his trip on the Red, Green and Orange lines, but delays meant that he didn't arrive at the Capitol South Station until 2:55. He apologized when he finally had a chance to speak about 3:30.

"Please appreciate my frustration," he said.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company