Correction to This Article
The article incorrectly said that the accident took place in Northwest Washington. The crash occurred in Northeast Washington, between the Fort Totten and Takoma stations.

NTSB sets public hearing for February on fatal Metro crash

By Lena H. Sun
Friday, November 13, 2009

The National Transportation Safety Board announced Thursday that it will hold a public hearing Feb. 23 and 24 into this summer's Metro crash that killed nine people and injured 80 in Northwest Washington.

The safety board, which has been investigating the June 22 crash, does not hold public hearings in each case it investigates. But hearings are held in high-profile accidents that involve significant safety issues.

A public hearing into the Red Line crash had been widely expected by transit safety experts. The board uses the hearings to supplement facts gathered at the scene and during its follow-up investigation.

The public hearing is separate from the final hearing, when the board will issue its report on the cause of the accident. An investigation into an accident cause often takes about a year.

The hearing will be chaired by NTSB board member Robert L. Sumwalt, who, along with investigators, will hear testimony on the adequacy of Metro's actions to address safety issues; the adequacy of state safety oversight of rail transit systems, including the Tri-State Oversight Committee that oversees Metro; and the adequacy of federal safety oversight of rail transit systems, among other issues, according to a news release.

"Millions of people travel by transit in this country every day and expect the highest level of safety while traveling on those systems," Sumwalt said in a statement. "This hearing will contribute important information both to the [Metro] investigation and to the public's knowledge about transit safety oversight in systems across the nation."

Federal investigators are focusing on the failure of the automatic crash-avoidance system in the Red Line accident, where one train plowed into the back of a stopped train north of the Fort Totten Station. The board has issued several safety recommendations urging Metro to put in place a real-time backup to its automatic crash-avoidance system and instructing other transit agencies to ensure they have adequate safety redundancy.

Unlike with other forms of transportation, the federal government cedes primary oversight of subways to a patchwork of state-level safety oversight boards. For Metro, the monitoring body is the Tri-State Oversight Committee, which has no employees, office or phone number. It also has no direct regulatory authority over Metro. Committee members work for local and state transportation departments, and much of their work is contracted out.

In recent months, a Washington Post investigation has documented repeated instances in which the Tri-State Oversight Committee was unsuccessful in obtaining information from Metro about near-collisions and other safety breakdowns. Many safety experts and federal officials say the incidents reflect what they describe as a fundamental flaw with Metro and other subway systems: a lack of effective and enforceable oversight that leaves transit systems in charge of policing their own safety.

On Monday, The Post reported that, since spring, Metro had barred committee monitors from getting onto the track bed while trains were in operation. The monitors were seeking to ensure that Metro was following worker safety rules after a number of employees had been killed on the rails.

After members of Congress called for an investigation and a hearing, Metro announced it would reverse the decision and lift the ban.

In an interview, Sumwalt said the dispute between Metro and the committee over access to live tracks was among the issues the board wants to investigate. "We want to know how they identify potential safety issues and what are they doing with that information," he said, referring to Metro.

Witnesses will include officials from Metro, the Tri-State Oversight Committee and the Federal Transit Administration, he said.

The board has had five hearings this year.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company