National Transportation Safety Board report on Metro crash may reach nationwide

A collection of videos from the deadly Metro crash on the Red Line in June 2009 from The Washington Post. Including a new intimate look into the emergency response.
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The announcement by the National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday on the likely cause of the June 2009 Metro crash might have major safety and financial implications for transit systems nationwide.

Federal investigators have focused on the failure of Metro's automatic train-control system in the accident, in which one train slammed into the back of another that was stopped north of the Fort Totten Metro station in Northeast Washington. The accident killed a train operator and eight passengers, injured scores of others and caused $25 million in damage.

But the NTSB meeting Tuesday is expected to go well beyond a narrow conclusion on the causes of last year's crash, both because of the spate of accidents that have plagued Metro and possible consequences for other subway systems, according to Metro and NTSB officials.

"My expectation is this will be broader than the usual technical report," said Mortimer Downey, a federally appointed member of Metro's board of directors. The NTSB report "could well go beyond [the crash] to talk about general safety concerns."

Questions remain about how Metro would carry out the recommendations, which the NTSB makes without regard to cost and has no statutory power to enforce. The mission of the NTSB is to conduct objective investigations to determine the probable causes of transportation accidents and to recommend ways to prevent them.

Metro is not required by law to implement the NTSB recommendations but has set aside $30 million in its capital budget for three years to carry out any changes, Metro Interim General Manager Richard Sarles said. But Metro officials acknowledge that the recommendations could involve much higher costs over a longer time period.

"Any recommendation will probably be a long-term effort" and would require Maryland, Virginia and the District to agree on a reprogramming of funds in Metro's six-year, $5 billion capital funding agreement, Metro Chief Financial Officer Carol Kissal said.

Federal influence

The Obama administration is pushing legislation that would grant the Federal Transit Administration unprecedented regulatory authority over Metro and other public transit systems, but that remains stalled in the House.

Absent such authority, the FTA has reserved the right to revisit its approval for urgent Metro safety improvement projects, and to modify the list of projects, to make sure the spending is in line with NTSB recommendations, according to FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff in a letter to Metro this month. That list of projects includes $220 million worth of capital improvements and was expanded Monday to include approval for funding for Metro's procurement of 300 rail cars to replace the oldest cars in the transit agency's fleet.

"We've been getting more lip service than real service from Metro," Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) said. "Metro must fully implement the recommendations of the National Transportation Safety Board report," which will contain "lessons learned" for all the nation's transit agencies.

"Congress must also do its part by passing legislation that gives the U.S. Department of Transportation the authority to establish and enforce federal safety standards for U.S. transit systems and to make sure that Metro's budget focuses on safety improvements," Mikulski said.

Metro faces four open NTSB investigations, more than any other transit agency in the history of the NTSB, according to NTSB spokeswoman Bridget Serchak. "In the 42 years we have been around, no one seems to recall that we have had four open investigations on any transit agency," she said.

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