Metro Crash: Safety Recommendations and Funding

Multiple casualties and several injured after one Metro train rear-ended another on the Red Line, north of Fort Totten. Pictured, offical personnel at the accident scene.
Nine people died after one Metro train rear-ended another on the Red Line, north of Fort Totten. (Hans Charles -- The Washington Post)
Eleanor Holmes Norton (D, D.C.)
Delegate to Congress
Wednesday, June 24, 2009; 11:00 AM

The operator of the Metro train that slammed into a stationary train in front of it apparently had activated the emergency brakes in in a failed effort to stop before the accident, federal officials said yesterday as they searched for the cause of Monday's Red Line wreck that killed nine and injured 80.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) was online Wednesday, June 24, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss safety recommendations and her plans to urge President Obama to authorize $1.5 billion for maintenance of the Metro system based, in part, by on an investigation by the NTSB.

In a statement Holmes said, "With Metro cars crowded with regional residents and dominated by federal employees, Congress had the ultimate wake-up call yesterday [Monday]. The only appropriate response is to begin to eliminate the crash-unworthy cars with this year's appropriations."


Eleanor Holmes Norton: I am very pleased to be here because there are a lot of questions that can be answered right now. I do want to alert the region to a formal request to a hearing on the accident that will be held after the July 4 recess, which begins next week. I discussed the appropriateness of a hearing at this time with both Ms. Hersman of the NTSB and with Mr. Catoe. She said that the board is often called to hearings by Congress when there has been a major accident like this and long before the cause of the accident has been investigated, and Mr. Catoe said it would be very useful to have an early hearing. In light of these conversations I decided to pursue a hearing so that what we do know will be on the record and I believe that residents should have continuing confidence in Metro and that those reasons should be laid on the record.


Arlington, Va.: Knowing all the information that NTSB is saying, this rail car involved in this accident was over 30 years old. Do you think Congress should require transit agencies to retire rail vehicles after so many years in service and/or mileage limits? Are there many Metro buses that are still in service after 30 years?

Eleanor Holmes Norton: This matter needs prompt attention. Normally Congress does not regulate local transportation systems at the federal level. There is a regional board called the Tri-State Safety Board. I have not heard of their interventions but we are in the process of looking at what, if any, regulatory features are part of this system. I also believe that Congress needs to take another look at federal regulations because most of these systems received some federal funds.


Washington, D.C.: Hello Mrs. Norton. After this horrible Metro disaster, what possible reason could exist that would prevent Metro from receiving the funding necessary to update or replace old rail cars? How can we be assured this won't happen again without this funding?

Eleanor Holmes Norton: You raise the point that cannot be avoided. Metro's need for capital funding is a long, well-known story in this region. The capital cost would be well beyond the system's ability to bear. Considering that predominant weekday riders are federal employees we finally got $1.5 billion available over a 10-year period that was authorized last year. We cannot say that funding will not come but it has been authorized and the appropriators have to put the funds in on an annual basis.

The president did not put the first $150 million in his budget submitted to us, regretfully, despite the fact that the region sent him a letter asking that these funds be put in. When his budget came without those funds the region (the regional congressional members) wrote to the appropriators and asked that subcommittee directly for the funding. However, that means Congress has to come up with the funds and we have not yet heard whether the subcommittee has included any Metro funds in its appropriation mark; therefore, when this accident occurred I circulated another letter to the House members in the region, all of whom have now signed on, once again, asking that the transportation subcommittee include the first installment of Metro funds in its budget.

You are right, how can we fail to do so? I spoke with Ms. Hersman of the NTSB who tells me that the NTSB issued an urgent safety recommendation in 2004 following the rollback accident at Woodley Park involving a car just like the most seriously damaged cars Monday. The NTSB thirteen years ago following the Shady Grove accident -- at that time -- said that these cars -- Series 1000 -- were not crashworthy and should be "eliminated or retrofitted." I spoke with Mr. Catoe yesterday who told me that their first priority for the first funds had long been replacing the 30 percent of their fleet that consist of these cars that date back to the 1970s.

The ball is in the court of Congress -- not Metro. Metro has had a very tough time on its day-to-day operations. Congress recognized that when we voted in 2008 for this $1.5 billion 10-year authorization ... we recognized that the federal government would shut down without Metro and that there was a vital national interest in keeping the system safe and in good order. Meanwhile, Metro has done Herculean work, for example, during the inauguration. We put more on its plate than we had any right to do. That was a direct federal contribution to the weardown of an old system, running these cars straight without relief, to handle almost two million people, without which there would have been no inauguration. Metro and its employees have made the best of a bad situation with virtually very little help from the federal government, notwithstanding our promise.

This greatest of Metro tragedies is a virtual mandate for Congress to help Metro begin to phase out these old cars


Washington, D.C.: If Metro cannot just exclude (or immediately retrofit) the 1000 series cars from their fleet, why not have them as the center two cars and use newer cars for the first and last two? This would put them in the area least subject to damage in a crash and the addition of the newer models would mean that all trains have some sort of recording device on them.

Eleanor Holmes Norton: This is an example of precisely the questions I want to ask at the hearing. I believe that all of the cars on the striking train were old cars. I suspect that there's a reason for that. It may well be that you cannot mix the newer cars with the older cars. We also don't know what the safety implications are. That's why we're going to have the NTSB at the hearing. We are going to be looking for alternatives since Metro can't take 30 percent of the cars out of service when they don't have enough cars for the ridership that we have encouraged to use the system.

However, it is important to say and for everyone to understand that Metro is right now running trains in a different way. For example, not on automatic. We understand that they have taken specific steps that were not being used on trains until now. I believe some of them involved how much dependence Metro will now have on automatic controls, which have been deemed particularly safe. They have already said some of the steps -- and I don't have the list before me -- but when I heard the steps I believed that the public had no reason to avoid taking Metro or to lose its confidence in the system. Please bear in mind that in judging a matter such as public transportation the overall record is what is most important as Metro has had an exemplary safety record. The needed precautions are being taken pending the elimination of the old cars.


Springfield, Va.: I ride the Metro every day and see the news reports about its crumbling infrastructure and lack of funds. Even before Monday's crash, I was against the expansion of the system to Dulles because Metro cannot take care of its current system, let alone handle a brand new line. Now, do you think the Dulles project should be put on hold until Metro's existing problems, especially replacing the old cars, are taken care of?

Eleanor Holmes Norton: This is apparently a separate stream of federal funding and local dollars. I know nothing about the Dulles project except to say that if it were stopped its funds would not shift to Metro.


Wheaton, Md.: To what extent are the governments of Maryland, the District and Virginia guilty of underfunding Metro?

Eleanor Holmes Norton: It's important to note that the federal funds, the $1.5 billion was contingent upon a statutory enactment by each of the three jurisdictions, an annual set-aside guaranteed source for funds that each of the three jurisdictions must put up in order to get the $150 million annually.


Hyattsville, Md.: It's just terrible that it takes a tragedy like this for Metro to maintain their equipment. Do you anticipate anyone at Metro will be fired? There should be a thorough house cleaning done there,

Eleanor Holmes Norton: NTSB has not reported the cause of the accident. It could've been factors we could not even guess about at this point. Ms. Hersman of the NTSB tells me it will be at least a year before we know what caused this tragedy.


Eleanor Holmes Norton: There were no recorders or data boxes on the old cars either so we should be very cautious about assigning blame without evidence.


Baltimore, Md.: Delegate Norton: A piece in the Post online discussed Mayor Fenty's role as the public face of dealing with the crash and its aftermath. Why would the mayor have any role at all? Metro is a regional transportation system that serves Maryland and Virginia as well as the District. Why would an elected official from one jurisdiction be out front on this, rather than letting Metro and the NTSB deal with it? Thanks.

Eleanor Holmes Norton: The lead for a tri-state system of course, is Metro. I did not attend any of these press conferences but I imagine the reason for the mayor's participation was the fact that the accident occurred in the District.


Washington, D.C.: Del. Norton,

You and your elected colleagues are charged with oversight responsibilities for transportation. Why do you and other members of Congress continue to need "wake up calls" through such tragic accidents in order to address problems with our nation's transportation systems?

Eleanor Holmes Norton: That's a terrific question. Metro comes under the jurisdiction of a committee and subcommittee on which I sit and to its credit I have been able to get regular oversight hearings on Metro, including one just a few months ago. It was our committee, the Oversight and Government Reform Committee and its subcommittee that authorized the funding. It took several tries to get that authorization through and it in fact failed in one house of the other until control of the Congress changed and we were able to get the authorization for these funds last year.

Our most recent hearing was April 29 where, once again, Metro laid out the urgency of congressional funds for this aging system. The record is replete with more than enough evidence that we were way overdue to help Metro attend to its rising capital costs. Indeed the federal government has assured extra wear and tear on the system because we subsidize federal workers to encourage them to take Metro instead of driving.

Since I've been in Congress, I must say sadly, I have rarely seen Congress do the right thing when it comes to money until it was given an offer it couldn't refuse. This tragedy is that offer.


Silver Spring, Md.: Rep. Norton,

You raise good points about the need for funding. Is there anything that riders can do to help push our lawmakers to approve funding?

Eleanor Holmes Norton: Thank you. Riders might want to write to the chairman of the Transportation Subcommittee where this matter is pending: Chairman John Olver of the Subcommittee on Transportation and Housing and Urban Development. People can go online to e-mail or phone the office. The number for the transportation subcommittee is 202-225-2141.


Washington, D.C.: I know that you have worked very closely with M.G. Wherley through his leadership of the D.C. National Guard. Could you offer a word of tribute for he and his wife Ann?

Eleanor Holmes Norton: Thank you. We were shocked and saddened that a man who became a real citizen of the District while he led our D.C. National Guard who, along with his wife Ann, were among the six of the nine who died. My deepest condolences I offer to the families in this city and region who are bearing the weight of this terrible tragedy. For the injured, please know that we are relieved for the survivors and wish them the very best and stand ready to assist them as we do the families of those who died.

May I just say to all who were on that train, the reports of the heroism and the calm exhibited by the riders have been the only heartwarming news from this tragedy. Our own first responders here in the District worked through the night and spared no energy in helping the injured and recovering the dead. We love our first responders and they lived up to every expectation we had; however, the response of the riders is nothing we have a right to expect. But they gave us their very best by helping others and eliminating panic in ways we shall never forget.

Maj. Gen. Wherley is simply emblematic of what those who died mean to us because he was one of us, decided not just to serve us in leading our indispensable D.C. National Guard but also to become one of us, buying a condo here while he served and remaining here after he retired. He and I became friends during the hardest days of the D.C. National Guard when these weekend warriors were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan to serve exactly as enlisted men and women do. My heart goes out to the general's son and daughter and to all the family and friends of those who died in the crash.


New Carrollton, Md.: Delegate Norton:

Would you take Metro to work tomorrow? Is there a good chance of another accident soon as the old, old cars start to break?

Eleanor Holmes Norton: Good question and the answer is unequivocally yes. Although to be candid, I usually drive in a hybrid to work but I would not hesitate nor do I ask my son not to ride Metro because of one accident, as horrible as this one is, does not render Metro unsafe to ride. This is my advice also because of the extra precautions put into effect after the accident by Metro. Bear in mind that Metro is doubling Metro bus service on many routes in order to accommodate riders who depended on Metro to get to work.

One thing Congress must bear in mind in light of this question is that there is no alternative for most regional residents except to use Metro and that puts the ball straight in our court. The federal government is the only entity in the U.S. that can write a check today.


Eleanor Holmes Norton:

Thank you for offering the tough questions that need answers and, in the process, helping me prepare for upcoming hearings on this Metro accident.


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