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Federal safety oversight of subways, light rail proposed

An exception to the rule

The federal government long has regulated the safe operation of airplanes, Amtrak and even ferries. But a law passed in 1965 prohibits federal regulation of subways. When that law was put into effect, there were only a handful of subways -- Metro wouldn't open its first line for another 11 years -- and lawmakers reasoned that federal oversight would hamper their growth.

As a result, rail transit operates under two very different federal systems offering disparate levels of safety oversight.

Commuter rail systems, such as MARC and the Virginia Railway Express, are subject to a long list of federal regulations and are regularly inspected by federal safety monitors.

Safety oversight of light-rail and subway systems, on the other hand, is delegated to 27 regional bodies controlled by states. Quality varies widely, as does funding and enforcement power. With a few notable exceptions, those agencies tend to be threadbare, averaging less than one staff person per agency, according to federal statistics.

The state organizations have been criticized for lacking expertise and independence. Some rely on the transit systems they oversee to supply their funding. Many lack the legal authority to force transit agencies to grant them access to equipment and documents, and cannot compel transit agencies to correct any deficiencies they identify.

For Metro, the second-busiest subway system in the nation, the monitoring body is the Tri-State Oversight Committee, which has six members but no employees, office or phone number. It also has no direct regulatory authority over Metro.

As it stands, the Transportation Department also cannot direct subway systems to adopt safety recommendations issued by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Details of the proposal

Under the administration's proposal, states that kept their oversight bodies would have to pass safety certification programs and demonstrate that they had an adequately trained staff, as well as financial independence and authority to compel compliance from systems they oversee.

States running their own programs would receive federal funds to cover salaries, training and other expenses. Federal regulations would ensure that the state programs established standards similar to those set by federal monitors.

The Federal Transit Administration would assume direct oversight for states that opt out of safety monitoring. The agency also would take over for state organizations that the administration determined to be inadequate.

If subway or light-rail systems did not meet the new safety standards, they would risk losing federal funding for capital expenditures, according to an administration official who was briefed on the plan.

Transit systems would be responsible for shouldering the cost of complying with new federal safety requirements.

The plan would also allow the FTA to issue safety regulations for bus transit systems, but officials said early efforts would focus on rail.

In August, The Post reported that Metro's supposedly fail-safe crash avoidance system had failed in March on Capitol Hill, allowing two trains to come perilously close to colliding. A few weeks later, the newspaper reported that the automatic crash avoidance system also failed in 2005, when three trains narrowly escaped what records said would have been "disastrous collisions" in a tunnel under the Potomac River. That system is a focus of the federal investigation into the cause of the June 22 crash, which killed nine people and injured 80, making it the deadliest incident in the history of Metro.

Last week, an article revealed that Metro had barred independent safety monitors from walking along live subway tracks to assess compliance with safety rules. Since the ban began, two track workers have been fatally injured on the rails.

Metro board Chairman Jim Graham said Friday that the agency is increasing supervision of safety chief Alexa Dupigny-Samuels, who denied access to the monitors.

Also last week, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) called on LaHood to investigate Metro's oversight by the committee. And Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who chairs a transportation subcommittee, said he would hold a hearing in the next few weeks that will look into issues raised as part of the investigation.

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