Commuters exit the Federal Center SW Metro station after service was suspended following a non-passenger train derailment in August. (Amanda Voisard/For the Washington Post)

The investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation has launched an audit into whether the Federal Transit Administration has the tools and personnel to carry out its new role overseeing the safety of Metro’s rail operations.

A 2012 audit looked broadly at the issues the agency would face if given responsibility for overseeing the safety of all the nation’s subway and light-rail systems through a network of state safety oversight agencies (SSO). But now that the FTA has taken the unprecedented step of assuming direct responsibility for the safety of Metro’s rail system, the inspector general thought a new review was warranted.

Other than a two-page letter announcing the action, the inspector general’s office said it would have no additional comment on the matter. The audit is expected to take about a year.

Never before has the FTA taken such a direct role in the safety of a subway system, and the stakes are significant. If the plan succeeds, the FTA’s intervention could be a model for how the federal government can make rail systems safer. Should it fail, it could provide fodder for critics who say the agency should not be involved.

“The Federal Transit Administration welcomes the U.S. Department of Transportation Inspector General’s audit of our actions to assume and relinquish direct safety oversight of a transit agency,” an FTA spokesman said. “The FTA took immediate steps to implement our new responsibilities and has accomplished much in the past two months.”

Those steps include appointing Sean Thompson to lead the FTA’s oversight of Metro safety, creating a website where the public can monitor Metro’s progress in addressing safety issues, and investigating a complaint about what was described as dangerous overcrowding at the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro station in early November.

Ensuring Metro is safe for passengers has taken on new urgency since a series of incidents that began in January with a smoke calamity at L’Enfant Plaza that killed one passenger and sickened scores of others. The lack of effective safeguards in the system was further highlighted in June when an FTA inspection identified numerous safety lapses, including a lack of adequate training for workers. And in August, an investigation into the derailment of an empty Green Line train found that Metro officials had known for a month that a stretch of track was defective but failed to fix it.

In an “urgent” recommendation issued in September, the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the January smoke incident, recommended that Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx shift oversight of Metro to the Federal Railroad Administration, an agency with experience overseeing the safety of heavy-rail systems such as Amtrak. But Foxx maintained that oversight of the nation’s second-busiest subway system was better left to the FTA. The secretary promised a robust program that would include surprise inspections, accountability and an aggressive push to resolve safety concerns quickly.

The shift was an acknowledgment of the ineffectiveness of the office that previously oversaw day-to-day safety issues at Metro, the Tri-State Oversight Committee, a state-based regulator that includes representatives from Maryland, the District and Virginia. Foxx noted that the FTA oversight is only a temporary arrangement and will end when a new state oversight organization is put in place.

Still, it appears the IG’s office has concerns about whether the FTA would be any better at holding Metro accountable.

In a letter announcing the audit, Mitchell Behm, assistant inspector general for surface transportation audits, noted that even though the FTA now has additional oversight powers, it still “may face significant challenges in carrying out these new responsibilities.”

Those concerns have their roots in the 2012 audit that explored the broader question of whether the FTA was prepared to carry out safety oversight of the nation’s subways and light-rail systems.

The report, “Challenges to Improving Oversight of Rail Transit Safety and Implementing an Enhanced Federal Role,” found gaps in data collected by the FTA.

“Although basic safety incident data such as fatalities, injuries and property damage are currently captured in the [National Transit Database], the data are insufficient for FTA to effectively oversee transit safety at the national level,” the report’s authors said. They also said that uniform national standards were needed to track transit agencies’ performance.

The 2012 review also raised concerns about the level of staffing devoted to working with state safety oversight program offices that would take primary responsibility for monitoring day-to-day safety issues. The report said that even though a series of SSOs are responsible for daily safety oversight of roughly 35 light-rail and 13 heavy-rail systems, the FTA had the equivalent of 2.5 people overseeing the program, the inspector general’s review found.

FTA officials said that the number of staff members focused on safety oversight has increased significantly since the passage of legislation in 2012 giving the agency safety oversight authority. The office currently has 48 positions, 30 of which are devoted to safety. Of those, eight full-time employees are dedicated to safety oversight of Metro, and additional DOT staff members and contractors are also working as part of that team.

FTA officials added that in December 2012, the inspector general’s office noted that concerns it had regarding data collection and performance measures were addressed in the legislation giving the agency new safety authority.