A Metro Silver Line train sits derailed just outside the East Falls Church station July 29, 2016. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Federal officials took the unprecedented step of assuming safety oversight of Metro after the regional agency charged with the job by all accounts proved woefully inadequate. But a year later, some observers question whether the Federal Transit Administration has made any real difference. Others say there has been small-but-significant change.

Despite threats of a system shutdown, hundreds of hours of inspections and dozens of reports detailing serious safety lapses in many areas, including the way Metro repairs and maintains its tracks and its inability to ensure that its employees are trained to do their jobs, chronic problems persist.

From relatively minor issues, such as the near-daily service disruptions that delay riders, to dangerous lapses such as speeding trains nearly hitting workers in tunnels, riders and some officials say they have not seen much change.

“FTA safety oversight hasn’t exactly been a shining example of an efficient and superior exercise of federal power,” Metro board member Michael Goldman said last week as he argued against the idea of a federal takeover of the transit agency.

Added Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.): “For some inexplicable reason [Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx] decided to ignore a pretty key recommendation by the [National Transportation Safety Board]. I think that was a very flawed decision,” referring to Foxx’s decision to give oversight to the FTA instead of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said there are some signs of progress for Metro. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

Foxx defended the FTA, saying that turning around such a troubled agency will not happen overnight.

“You’ve got to understand that what we’re dealing with here is more than one type of problem,” Foxx said. “It’s not just the hardware — it’s the software. It’s the people who have to be reeducated and re-acculturated to being held accountable for safety.”

Foxx said there are signs of progress. For example, Metro’s new leadership has shown a willingness to act when it comes to passenger safety. After a tunnel fire in March that was eerily similar to the fatal January 2015 smoke incident that killed one person and injured scores of others, General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld ordered a one-day shutdown of the entire rail system so crews could inspect hundreds of electrical cables. Two months later, Wiedefeld unveiled plans for the massive, year-long SafeTrack rebuilding program.

But those efforts are undercut by smaller, day-to-day incidents that seem to show that after almost a year in the job, Wiedefeld has not fully created a culture where safety is foremost.

Just last month, a train operator was removed from service after his train nearly struck four people, including two federal inspectors who were examining the tracks near Reagan National Airport. Another operator was removed from service for violating speed restrictions in the area that same day. In the spring, there were 14 smoke and fire incidents in a single 20-day period. During the summer, a “limited” NTSB investigation into an Aug. 3 derailment of a Silver Line train at East Falls Church station found that Metro officials may have known about problems with track in that area since 2009.

Acting FTA Administrator Carolyn Flowers perhaps stated it best in a blog post published on the anniversary of the agency’s takeover: “ . . . for all the safety improvements WMATA has made, it remains a long and difficult task to instill the strong safety culture that is required for true and lasting change.”

Jo Strang, former chief safety officer for the FRA, and other experts say that under FTA’s watch Metro has made tangible-but-limited improvements, adding that lasting change will take much longer than the current time frame for the FTA’s oversight responsibilities.

The FTA’s big achievement so far, railroad experts like Strang said, has been establishing priorities. In a transit system mired with problems in every department and on every level, the FTA has helped Metro’s managers concentrate attention and financial resources on the most pressing challenges.

“I think they’ve helped Washington Metro focus on certain issues, and you know, they’ve done a good job of that,” said Metro board member Robert Lauby, who also is the FRA’s chief safety officer. “But it’s Washington Metro that actually has to improve safety, and they do that by improving the state of good repair of the system, improving processes and procedures and finding their own oversight.”

Wiedefeld, who will mark his first anniversary heading the agency this month, said that the FTA’s efforts have helped Metro.

“Overall, it’s been a plus for us from the perspective that clearly what was being done in the past wasn’t making the grade,” Wiedefeld said. Even so, he said that FTA officials aren’t necessarily raising issues Metro isn’t already aware of.

“They’re coming around making sure that things are getting done, not bringing anything new to us,” he said.

A recent audit by the DOT’s own internal watchdog found that the FTA has made progress in building a program to oversee systems like Metro but that its efforts have been hobbled by its inability to hire and keep qualified personnel and by not having required safety standards in place for subway and light-rail systems.

Foxx is the first transportation secretary to use the power granted to the department by Congress in 2012 to intervene when state-based oversight fails.

Before that, the federal government had no role in regulating subway and light-rail systems. That frustrated Foxx’s predecessor, Ray LaHood, who found there was little he could do to force change at Metro in the wake of the 2009 Red Line crash near Fort Totten that killed nine people.

Officials had long known that the Tri-State Oversight Committee (TOC), the office responsible for safety oversight of Metro, lacked the funding and authority to force Metro to address safety concerns, but it wasn’t until October 2015 — after the chairman of the NTSB called for safety oversight to be turned over to the FRA — that Foxx announced that Metro would be the first U.S. subway system to be placed under federal oversight.

FTA officials promised “heightened, on-the-ground inspection activity,” as well as surprise inspections — another thing that the TOC did not have the authority to do.

Since the FTA took control, investigators have conducted roughly 20 inspections a month, more than one-third of which were unannounced. The agency has issued blistering reports on issues including Metro’s haphazard track maintenance program and the lack of training for controllers who manage rail traffic in the 117-mile system, putting riders at risk.

The job has been a major undertaking for the FTA, an agency that until 2012 was largely focused on handing out grants.

FTA officials said 19 individuals are assigned to Metro oversight, which includes staff from other divisions within DOT and full- and part-time contractors. In fiscal year 2016, the budget for oversight was $5.7 million.

Hundreds of pages of inspection reports over the past 10 months reveal the difficulties FTA inspectors sometimes face. The reports show an organization sometimes resistant to change, often dismissive of federal inspectors and one that does not appear to learn from its mistakes.

According to the reports, FTA inspectors have faced considerable problems getting access to trains and tracks to do their work. In at least 15 instances, they were denied access by Metro personnel — sometimes, even by officials in the Rail Operations Control Center. In one instance, inspectors attempted to investigate an insulator explosion at Capitol South station — an incident that was recorded on video and widely circulated. Inspectors were finally allowed into the area several hours later.

Wiedefeld said some of the incidents described are “overstated.”

“I’ve got 13,000 people and I don’t want people coming to them, flashing a badge and saying, ‘I have access,’ ” he said. “They have access to anything they want. I just want to make sure we’re following some process.”

Even so, those incidents, according to Strang, the former FRA chief safety officer, are a cause for concern — both for inspectors’ ability to do their jobs and also because they serve as a barometer for the agency’s safety culture. If rank-and-file employees don’t understand the importance of allowing access to federal inspectors after multiple staff bulletins, what other important safety directives are being ignored?

“I don’t get the impression that commitment to safety has been communicated across the whole agency — or at least been fully absorbed by the employees,” said Strang, now the vice president of safety and regulatory policy at the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association.

Even so, the FTA’s year of tangoing with Metro has helped it take significant steps toward improving its reputation within the railroad industry as a regulator not just a funder, she said.

“I think they’ve got more credibility in the safety arena than they used to,” Strang said. “And they certainly now have much more experience than they used to.”

Still, doubts remain about the FTA’s ability to provide tough oversight that troubled systems like Metro need. The NTSB continues to push for Metro oversight to be shifted to the FRA and considers the current arrangement “unacceptable.”

Yet significant issues raised at New Jersey Transit in the aftermath of September’s commuter rail crash in Hoboken that killed one person and injured more than 100 suggest that the FRA is far from perfect.

“We do oversight, and we still have accidents,” Lauby said. “We do the same thing FTA does. We come to work every day, do the best we can, and try to provide assistance and advice, help people identify issues and we work with them to get them solved.”

There also is the larger question of what happens once the FTA turns oversight over to a new state safety oversight agency. The transition has been a source of tension between Foxx and elected leaders in the District, Maryland and Virginia. Earlier this year, Foxx gave them an ultimatum: have a new state safety agency in place by Feb. 9 or risk losing millions in federal funding. D.C. officials have already held hearings on the matter, but because state legislatures won’t convene until mid-January, officials in both Maryland and Virginia have told the secretary they will not meet the February deadline.

“Secretary Foxx made his position clear,” an FTA spokeswoman said last week. “He expects the jurisdictions to meet the February deadline.”

Whether a new secretary of transportation in the Trump administration follows through on that threat remains to be seen.

Either way, it seems more than likely that the FTA will remain responsible for Metro oversight for longer than it anticipated.

“Given how extensive the nature of the problem we’re dealing with — we’re working through these things, but we could pick apart a thousand inspections and find problems in any bucket of inspections that we do,” Foxx said. “The point is that people are being held accountable in a different way today than they were a year ago. And my suspicion is that they’ll be held accountable even more next year than this year.”