Patrons board Metro at the Stadium-Armory station. (Kevin Clark/The Washington Post)

FOR YEARS, Metro and its two nominal overseers — one local, the other federal — have played a game of “Let’s Pretend.” The game entails willful blindness and brazen irresponsibility in the face of spiraling deterioration of a mismanaged, accident-prone subway system.

It works like this: The local overseer, called the Tri-State Oversight Committee, or the TOC, identifies safety lapses on Metro and demands action. Metro sometimes responds, sometimes responds late and sometimes doesn’t respond at all. Eventually it devises an “action plan” to resolve the TOC’s concerns. The action plan may or may not be carried out. Occasionally, Metro withholds critical data on safety incidents and accidents.

This game is one-sided: Metro holds all the cards — the resources, the information and the personnel. The TOC has only token amounts of each.

The third player, the Federal Transit Administration, enters the game sporadically, generally in the aftermath of serious mishaps. The FTA excoriates Metro for its incompetence, notes the TOC’s toothlessness and demands change. Everyone then settles back and pretends that things will get better.

For example: It was first noted shortly after the Red Line accident that left nine people dead and dozens injured that the TOC was ineffectual and needed to be replaced. Yet in June of this year, the FTA was still warning of “potentially devastating” effects of not replacing the TOC with a more muscular oversight body.

As for the three funding partners responsible for Metro — the District, Maryland and Virginia — well, they’re working on it. They say they have commissioned a study of how to replace the TOC — five years after it should have been replaced.

Last month, the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board called for real change, urging that oversight of Metrorail be shifted from the FTA to the much bigger Federal Railroad Administration, an unprecedented step for an urban transit system. The NTSB chairman, Christopher A. Hart, in a letter to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, said Metro’s severe problems required urgent action.

Mr. Foxx’s response: Let the game continue — but, you know, with the FTA actually paying attention this time.

He rejected the NTSB proposal, insisting that Metro remain under the aegis of “the responsible agency,” meaning the same transit bureaucrats in the FTA who have been tut-tutting about Metro’s problems for so long, to so little effect. Instead, Mr. Foxx said the FTA would displace, or at least supplement, the TOC, but from now on would exercise what he called “enhanced oversight.”

What that means is anyone’s guess. Mr. Foxx made no mention of additional funding to exercise this “enhanced oversight.” In fact, he essentially said the FTA would just try harder — for instance, by carrying out surprise inspections and the “issuance of directives.” The FTA was already empowered to do both.

Mr. Foxx’s “this time we really mean it” approach is not confidence-inspiring. The FTA has had legislative authority to toughen its oversight of Metro for at least three years; instead, it has relied mainly on a local oversight body whose incapacity is notorious. Will it take another subway tragedy before officials end the gamesmanship and get serious about fixing safety oversight of the capital’s subway system?