Metro’s safety problems are so severe and persistent that federal officials should take a much stronger role in monitoring the subway system: reclassifying it as a commuter railroad so the transit agency can be subject to tougher regulations and penalties, the National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday.
In an “urgent” recommendation to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, the safety board’s chairman, Christopher A. Hart, cited years of “repeated and ongoing deficiencies” in Metro and said the current oversight process, involving the Federal Transit Administration, is inadequate and bound to keep failing.
Hart urged Foxx to ask Congress for the authority to reclassify Metro as a commuter railroad, which would remove the subway from the FTA’s safety oversight and place it under the “robust inspection, oversight, regulatory, and enforcement authority” of the larger, more powerful Federal Railroad Administration. The reclassification would apply only to the rail system, not the agency as a whole.
“The NTSB has initiated 11 investigations on the [Metro] rail system over the past 33 years,” Hart wrote in an 11-page letter to Foxx. “In total, these accidents and incidents have resulted in 18 fatalities. Many of the NTSB investigations determined that [Metro’s] inadequate management of its operation contributed to the events.”
Metro would become the first urban subway to undergo such a shift.
The Federal Railroad Administration oversees “heavy” systems — freight and commuter lines, such as MARC and VRE, as well as Amtrak. But the closest system to an urban subway that the administration oversees is the Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) line, a 14-mile rapid transit link between New Jersey and New York. About half of PATH’s tracks are underground.
The FTA did not respond to a request for comment on the proposal, and the railroad administration referred calls to Foxx’s office.
The Department of Transportation “is exploring all options” to improve Metro’s safety performance, “including a range of approaches that will allow us to directly increase federal safety oversight of Metro,” said Namrata Kolachalam, a spokeswoman for Foxx. “We will take this NTSB recommendation into consideration during this process.”
Members of the Washington region’s congressional delegation also sounded noncommittal about shifting responsibility for federal oversight of the subway.
“I am disheartened by Metro’s seeming inability to get out of this quagmire of problems,” Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) said in a statement. “I will give today’s NTSB recommendation serious thought, and am eager to hear the reactions of Northern Virginians as well.”
Joshua Schank, president of the Eno Center for Transportation, a Washington-based think tank, said he is not convinced that increasing safety oversight of subways, including Metro, is necessary. Giving more oversight responsibility to the Federal Railroad Administration might not be a wise use of its resources, he said.
“There’s only so much capacity for safety oversight in the U.S. Department of Transportation, so what are the priorities?” Schank said. “Where do we get the most bang for our buck? It’s not on transit. Transit is one of the safest modes.”
The oversight committee established by the FTA to monitor Metro’s safety “does not conduct independent inspections of equipment, infrastructure or operations” and “has no regulatory or enforcement authority, such as the ability to initiate or levy civil penalties,” Hart said.
In contrast to that relatively toothless oversight (which the NTSB, in a statement, called “an unacceptable gap in the safety system”), the Federal Railroad Administration has “about 400 federal safety inspectors whose efforts are supplemented by about 165 state inspectors,” including in Maryland and Virginia, Hart said.
And the railroad administration “has several tools available when inspectors find that railroads are noncompliant with applicable regulations,” Hart said. “It can issue civil penalties, individual liability penalties, compliance orders, and emergency orders.”
The NTSB’s call for far stronger federal oversight of Metro is the latest significant development in months of growing scrutiny of the failure-prone subway, including mounting criticism from elected officials across the region.
In his letter to Foxx, Hart cited the Jan. 12 smoke incident in a Yellow Line tunnel near the L’Enfant Plaza station, in which a stalled train filled with riders was enveloped by noxious fumes from an electrical malfunction on the tracks. More than 80 passengers were sickened, and one died of respiratory failure.
He also mentioned the Aug. 6 derailment of a train — which was not carrying passengers — between the Federal Triangle and Smithsonian stations. That incident forced a day-long shutdown of the two stations and crippled a large part of the subway for hours, leaving tens of thousands of riders scrambling for transportation alternatives.
The NTSB is still investigating the smoke calamity. Meanwhile, other incidents in recent months have annoyed and frightened riders, including an electrical failure that halted a Green Line train in a tunnel near the Georgia Avenue-Petworth station on Sept. 21. Although no one was hurt, more than 200 passengers had to be evacuated by firefighters.
Members of the region’s congressional delegation did not immediately reject or embrace the proposal to reclassify the nation’s second-busiest subway as a commuter railroad.
“A shakeup of [Metro’s] oversight systems is clearly needed,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). “However, the urgent nature of NTSB’s recommendations will likely be impeded by Congress’s demonstrated inability to act swiftly.”
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said that Metro’s “frequent safety lapses and subsequent service disruptions” are “inexcusable and intolerable” and that it “must be monitored by an independent authority with the necessary resources to conduct safety inspections and authority to enforce recommendations.”
Like others, Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) made no prediction about Hart’s proposal, saying simply, “I will work with my colleagues in Congress as we move forward on the next steps following these important NTSB recommendations.”
Said U.S. Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.): “The fortunes of the federal government and Metro are inherently linked. The federal government must play a more active role in providing the necessary oversight and resources to address these challenges.”
Mortimer L. Downey, chairman of Metro’s governing board, said he was “not necessarily” opposed to Hart’s recommendation. But he said he wanted more time to study the potential implications of such a shift in oversight authority.
Metro’s interim general manager, Jack Requa, took no public position. “We are continuing to work every day to address recommendations we have received previously from the NTSB and other oversight agencies,” he said.
Under a 1991 U.S. law, most subways and similar rail systems are monitored by “state safety oversight agencies,” which operate under the auspices of the FTA. There are 32 such agencies overseeing 50 rail transit systems in the United States. Metro’s safety monitor, the Tri-State Oversight Committee (TOC), has two members each from Maryland, Virginia and the District. The members are all officials of the transportation agencies in their jurisdictions.
“As a committee, not a legal entity of a state, the TOC cannot hire staff, establish qualifications or training requirements, promulgate or enforce legislation or regulations, issue contracts, or take independent action,” Hart said. “The TOC has no uniform standards or qualifications for its members and no standard terms for employees.”
The FTA “established minimum requirements for safety programs that the state agencies implement,” Hart said in his letter. Since the creation of the agencies, including the tri-state committee, the NTSB has “identified inadequate oversight and regulation” as contributing factors in “many” subway incidents.
Citing “the continued failure of the Tri-State Oversight Committee to provide safety oversight” of Metro, Hart said the transit administration “has a very small staff to regulate, audit, investigate and administer” the state oversight agencies.
“The level of expertise” within the various agencies, including the committee that monitors Metro, Hart said, “are not necessarily commensurate with the amount of rail transit activity for which each agency is responsible.”