WITH EACH announcement and every new revelation, federal transportation officials expose the depths to which Metro’s safety standards have fallen. There are a dozen or so major subway systems across the nation, but only for Metro has the Federal Transit Administration assumed full safety oversight and undertaken a “track integrity safety blitz,” which, having been underway since March, continues to yield unsettling maintenance problems ignored or overlooked by Metro itself.
Now comes the National Transportation Safety Board with an assessment that the FTA itself is unequal to the task of ensuring Metrorail’s safety. So not only is Metro unsafe, says the NTSB’s chairman, Christopher Hart, but also its federal overseers are inept — “averse to crafting and enforcing safety regulations and minimum requirements regarding operations, track and equipment and signal and train control systems.” He believes only the Federal Railroad Administration has the competence and muscle to implant a culture of safety at Metro.
The NTSB, which is in charge of major accident investigations, delivered its report Tuesday on the L’Enfant Plaza smoke incident of January 2015, which left one passenger dead and scores sickened. For passengers, the report — which details a layered systemic breakdown in the L’Enfant Plaza accident — is the latest blow to whatever confidence remains in Metro.
Mr. Hart’s scathing critique notwithstanding, the FTA’s revelations may serve at least one important function: to buy Metro some time, or at least indulgence, to start to drag itself back into some semblance of good repair, a process likely to take years. Passengers who may have howled at single-tracking and other schedule-busting maintenance projects a year or two ago might now forgive quotidian inconveniences on the logic that between delays and derailment, delays look like the better option.
A less sanguine scenario is that the findings of federal inspectors — defective rails; red-light-running train operators; trains parked without basic safety precautions to prevent them from rolling down the track — may hasten Metro’s already alarming loss of passengers.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx is aware of Metro’s underlying problems, namely its unwieldy, possibly unworkable governance structure and unmet liabilities running to billions of dollars. He reckons that fixing those is a non-starter before Metro starts to show improved safety. Hence his focus on the system’s safety shortcomings, with the attendant drama of FTA’s track inspection “blitz.”
It’s pleasant to think that a short-term benefit of the “blitz” would be a sense of alarm among lawmakers and officials in Annapolis, Richmond and the District, who, having failed to meet the challenge for decades, are now charged with establishing a permanent safety oversight commission for Metro. Instead, there has been nothing but torpor from Metro’s three local stakeholders. Understandably, the NTSB doubts the localities are up to the job. But the FTA, which has been performing that role on an emergency basis since last fall, is not meant to do it indefinitely.
Metro is an orphan, and it is sick. Mr. Foxx has been ringing the alarm after years of official neglect and lack of accountability. Bravo, but alarm-ringing may not be enough.