Subway Safety Panel Foiled by Constraints
12-Year-Old Oversight Committee Has Little Influence on Metro Operations

By Joe Stephens and Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 10, 2009

Before June's deadly subway crash, no federal agency stepped in to ensure that Metro found and fixed the electrical circuits now suspected of contributing to the worst accident in the system's history.

That's because none is authorized to. Although the federal government regulates the safe operation of buses, Amtrak, airplanes and even ferries, it cedes primary oversight of subway safety to local panels -- in the case of Metro, a little-known organization known as the Tri-State Oversight Committee.

The committee has no direct regulatory authority over safety and cannot order Metro to make changes. It has no employees of its own and no dedicated office, phone or Web site. It borrows space for its monthly meetings, which officials said no member of the public has ever attended.

"No one knows we exist," acknowledged vice chairman Matthew Bassett.

The Federal Transit Administration and congressional auditors have described the committee in the past as lacking resources and having a cumbersome administrative process. Federal officials say the amount of time the committee and its contractors devoted to safety oversight last year was the equivalent of less than two full-time employees.

The committee was thrust into public view this week after it released records to The Washington Post revealing that in March, a Metro train on Capitol Hill came "dangerously close" to another, halting only after the operator hit the emergency brake. The incident was described in an April 29 letter in which the committee asked Metro to investigate and report back. The committee has no power to demand a response and, to date, the committee says Metro has made no formal report to it on the incident.

Since the June 22 tragedy that claimed nine lives and injured 80 people, momentum has been building for federal regulation of subway systems nationwide.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has created a committee of senior agency officials to find ways to close what his department describes as a gap in oversight, created by ceding safety issues to regional transit authorities.

And on Capitol Hill, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) has introduced legislation that would create new federal safety standards for subway and elevated train systems. A companion bill was introduced in the House by Democratic Rep. Donna F. Edwards, who represents parts of Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

Critics welcome the initiatives, charging that under the current system members of the Tri-State Oversight Committee in effect oversee themselves.

"What exists is a sham and can't be made to work," said Jack Corbett of http://MetroRiders.Org, a Washington-based nonprofit organization. "People who are on [the committee] are employees of the entities they would regulate. The head of the committee works for the District Department of Transportation. If their job was to ensure safety, they would be telling their bosses what to do. It's a built-in conflict of interest."

Some state-level regulators have far more authority. For instance, the subway system in San Francisco, which is subject to muscular oversight by state regulators, discovered problems with flickering circuits and was directed to install a collision-avoidance backup system decades ago.

Members of the Tri-State Oversight Committee stress that they are serious about safety and say they have made improvements recently. Indeed, there is no guarantee that any regulator, no matter how powerful and well-funded, could have guaranteed discovery of the disruptions in the crash-avoidance circuits now suspected of playing a part in the subway crash.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators have not pinpointed the cause of the June crash, in which one train rammed another between the Takoma and Fort Totten stations. But the NTSB says it appears that Metro's control system failed to detect a stopped train and that an approaching one did not receive a command to stop. The agency concluded last month that Metro's train protection system was inadequate and urged the addition of a real-time, continuous backup, but it has no power to make Metro do so.

Federal officials have also said the track circuit at the crash site had been intermittently malfunctioning for as long as 18 months.

Metro officials have stressed that the system remains sound. "I use the system. It is safe," Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. told reporters. The agency will implement whatever recommendations come from the NTSB to make the system even safer, he said.

FTA chief Peter Rogoff isn't satisfied that the federal government has sufficient authority over subways. He told a Senate committee last week that the FTA is prohibited by law from establishing national safety standards, requiring federal inspections or dictating operating practices. Instead, he said, individual systems create safety programs, then state organizations monitor those programs.

"The state is expected to take the lead for oversight," Rogoff said. "The new administration finds this status quo to be unacceptable and we expect to propose reforms."

Federal data show that subway accidents nationwide have increased in recent years, as have subway collisions.

It would be "impossible to say" whether robust federal oversight could have averted the Metro crash, said FTA spokesman Paul Griffo. "But we don't believe that a regulatory framework like the Tri-State Oversight Committee . . . can adequately address the safety of the entire system."

Public transportation systems welcome the increased attention, said William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association. But any plans for changes should make sure to keep what works, he said.

"We don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water," Millar said. "You're 29 times less likely to die taking a trip on public transit than you are driving your car."

Oversight is especially complicated for Metro because it is funded and controlled jointly by Maryland, Virginia and the District. The three jurisdictions signed an agreement in 1997 creating the Tri-State Oversight Committee, part of a national effort to improve subway oversight. Each jurisdiction has two committee seats. In 2006, a Government Accountability Office audit of the committee highlighted a number of problems, including an unwieldy administrative process that limited quick reaction, the lack of a full-time administrator and a large backlog of accident reports.

In response, Metro and the committee expedited the review of 83 investigation reports, according to Eric Madison, chairman of the committee and a planner for the District Department of Transportation. But accident and incident reports kept pouring in, he told Congress last month, and 43 investigations remain open.

In another improvement, officials said, one committee member has been assigned virtually full time to its work.

Madison acknowledged that Metro "retains the ability to respond at their discretion" to suggestions, and said that having more authority over the system "would be beneficial."

Asked whether additional funding and authority might have enabled the committee to identify fluttering crash-avoidance circuits as a safety concern before the crash, Madison responded that such reforms would have allowed the committee to be "more proactive." Safety experts said the committee's charter severely limits what members can accomplish.

The committee does have the authority to recommend that the FTA withhold 5 percent of its grant funding to Metro as a sort of penalty but has never done so, Madison said, asking, "Would you really want to withhold money from an agency if they're already strapped for cash?"

The committee's limitations are highlighted in the April 29 letter from Madison to Metro's chief safety officer. The letter "asks" Metro to conduct an investigation of the March 2 near-miss of two trains on Capitol Hill, and says that Metro "need not prepare a separate report" for the committee if it is preparing one for its own internal use.

Minutes of committee hearings show that in April the committee discussed holding some of its future meetings at Metro's headquarters to allow "additional participation" of Metro staff "who might not be able to make an out-of-building meeting as easily."

Critics say federal oversight would be an improvement over the current system.

"It's long overdue," said Lawrence M. Mann, a Washington lawyer who specializes in railroad safety and personal injury law. "If there were federal oversight and maintenance requirements, this [circuit failure] would be a clear violation."

Mann said that only now, in the wake of a deadly crash, has Metro begun looking into installing a second system to backstop the train protection system. "If you had federal standards, there would be a mandate for a redundant system," he said.

Staff writer Lyndsey Layton contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company