Metro Needs Vigorous Oversight — Not the Pretend Variety

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

"TRUST US." That, in a phrase, has been Metro's attitude toward the toothless, penniless and powerless body that in theory provides safety supervision. In fact, Metro officials have treated the Tri-State Oversight Committee with supreme neglect, ignoring its requests for safety information and status reports even after two near-collisions in recent years. After a June accident that killed nine people near Fort Totten, Metro's "trust us" isn't good enough anymore.

For years, the transit system's benign complacency toward the oversight committee went largely overlooked, including by The Post, owing in part to the enviable safety record Metro had compiled. With no passenger fatalities in a crash since 1982, Metro seemed to have no pressing need to explain itself.

That was a delusion. As The Post's Joe Stephens and Lena H. Sun wrote on Sunday, a chilling incident in June 2005, in which a three-train pileup in a tunnel under the Potomac River was averted by a hairbreadth thanks to a couple of alert train operators, is now the focus of federal officials investigating this summer's accident. They are studying similarities between the two incidents, as well as another close call in March this year, which suggest that Metro's safety record before this summer may not have been as reassuring as it seemed.

Unfortunately, there is no federal agency authorized to oversee Metro's operations -- a curious state of affairs, to say the least, given that the transit system carries a huge number of federal workers to and from their jobs each day. What Metro is left with is the Tri-State committee, an obscure body lacking regulatory powers, offices, telephones and permanent staff. Metro has no legal obligation to cooperate with the oversight committee. That became glaringly apparent when transit officials neglected -- or refused -- to keep the committee abreast of recommended safety improvements after the 2005 tunnel incident. And it has become frightening in light of comments from the committee, a former federal transportation safety official and a Metro engineer, all of whom were unconvinced that Metro exhaustively investigated the near-collision in 2005.

State, federal and regional officials, in concert with the Metro board, must examine ways of creating a brawnier oversight regime. The nation's second-busiest transit system has outgrown the era when it gets a pass simply by saying "trust us."

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