Metro now is the first U.S. subway system placed under direct federal supervision for safety lapses under a plan announced late Friday by Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
Day-to-day operations would continue under the auspices of Metro, but Federal Transit Administration officials could intervene when safety concerns arise. Officials could conduct surprise inspections and issue directives to Metro to immediately address safety problems in the system.
“This increased oversight means that FTA will now directly enforce and investigate the safety oversight of [the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority] Metrorail,” Foxx wrote in a letter responding to a pair of urgent recommendations issued last week by the National Transportation Safety Board.
The NTSB, which is investigating a smoke incident that killed one person in January, had recommended that Foxx shift the responsibility for safety oversight to the Federal Railroad Administration, another agency within the Transportation Department with more experience and a larger staff than the FTA. The shift also would have subjected the trouble-prone subway system to stricter safety rules and tougher sanctions for violations.
But Foxx said the change, which would have required congressional action, would only create “confusion and a greater risk of slowing down improvements.”
“We believe this approach accomplishes the same goals as the NTSB’s urgent recommendations, albeit with greater speed and within the responsible agency,” he said.
Jack Requa, Metro’s interim general manager, said he welcomed Foxx’s action. “We will continue to work closely with the FTA to improve safety of the WMATA system and are fully engaged in implementing corrective actions recently approved by the agency,” he said. “We appreciate Secretary Foxx’s continued support and his leadership on safety oversight.”
NTSB officials did not respond to requests for comment Friday night.
The current system involves oversight by a committee of representatives from the District, Maryland and Virginia. Foxx said the FTA will oversee safety at Metro until a new oversight office is created.
In his letter, Foxx also emphasized that Metro must move quickly to hire a new general manager. The transit agency has been without permanent leadership since January, when Richard Sarles retired.
“The urgency of having accountable leadership at the helm of WMATA cannot be overstated,” Foxx wrote.
Efforts to hire a permanent leader have been bogged down by infighting among board members.
But D.C. Council member Jack Evans, a member of Metro’s board, said recently that a new leader could be in place by November.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who has been outspoken about Metro’s issues, said the safety of the transit system must continue to be a top priority. And despite the secretary’s assurances, he said he remains skeptical about the FTA’s ability to oversee safety at Metro.
“I look forward to learning more about Secretary Foxx’s proposal to ramp up FTA’s safety oversight of the Metrorail system but remain concerned that immediate, effective oversight not be victim to bureaucracy,” he said.
“Metro needs robust safety oversight today. And to perform that oversight, we need an agency with the team and the regulatory tools to do the job today. According to the NTSB, that agency is the FRA and not the FTA.”
Added Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.): “I am interested in hearing all proposals to keep Metro riders safe. Clearly, the Tri-State Oversight Committee is ineffective and more federal oversight is needed.”
Pressure has been growing for a fix to the myriad problems that have plagued Metro since a Jan. 12 incident in which scores of riders were sickened and one passenger died after smoke filled a Yellow Line train stuck in a tunnel near L’Enfant Plaza.
A series of other service breakdowns and management failures have left many doubtful about the agency’s ability to provide safe, reliable service.
A derailment Aug. 6 of a train that was not in service forced the closure of three busy downtown stations for nine hours, leaving thousands of frustrated passengers scrambling for alternatives.
The subsequent investigation found that officials knew that a section of rail was a problem a month before the incident but that no action was taken. Last month, more than 250 passengers had to be rescued from a Green Line train after it lost power near the Georgia Avenue station.
Connolly echoed Foxx’s concern about the leadership void at Metro.
“I also applaud and appreciate Secretary Foxx’s acknowledgment of the urgent need for Metro to hire a new general manager,” he said. “Frankly, that is the single best thing that can be done right now to ensure the safe and reliable operation of the Metro system.”
A 2012 law gives the FTA the ability to assume safety oversight in the absence of effective state or local oversight.
Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) said Metro’s repeated failures must end.
“Metro riders are fed up with the status quo of chronic delays and significant safety issues,” he said. “I share that frustration, and look forward to hearing more about how FTA plans to ensure that Metro is held accountable for improving safety and maintenance on the system.”