Update 2:30 p.m.:
The National Transportation Safety Board has officially released its recommendations for D.C.’s Metrorail system, “calling for direct federal oversight” of the transit agency by a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The recommendations ask USDOT to petition Congress to designate Metro a “commuter authority,” allowing the Federal Railroad Administration to exercise regulatory oversight of it. Once Congress has changed Metro’s status, NTSB asks that USDOT “direct [the FRA] to develop and implement a plan to transition the oversight of [Metro]” within six months. NTSB is asking USDOT to respond to these two recommendations within 30 days.
“There is now a lack of independent safety oversight of Metrorail,’’ NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart said in a prepared statement. “This is an unacceptable gap in system safety.”
Metro’s Interim General Manager and CEO Jack Requa issued his own statement this afternoon:
“While today’s recommendation is not directed to [Metro], we are continuing to work every day to address recommendations we have received previously from the NTSB and other oversight agencies. We welcome the support we have received from all of our oversight agencies and regional partners, as we work on our common goal of improving safety for WMATA’s customers and employees.”
As increased federal oversight for Metro rears its head, regional Congressmen are starting to chime in as well. Virginia Democrat Gerald Connolly, who represents most of Fairfax and part of Prince William counties, recalled the fatal Jan. 12 smoke incident near L’Enfant Plaza as a “tragedy [that] has laid bare the stunning absence of a culture of safety and competence within Metro.”
“The constant barrage and increasing severity of service disruptions are creating a crisis in commuter and stakeholder confidence and underscores the urgency for Metro to hire a new General Manager with operational experience,” Connolly said in a statement today.
It’s worth noting, as Metro watchdog Chris Barnes does, that NTSB has only issued recommendations. “It’s not a mandate, it’s not something that’s going to happen until it does happen,” he says. “I see this as just another of the many possible ways to fix [Metro].”
Big changes may be coming for Metro.
The National Transportation Safety Board is expected to recommend an “urgent” oversight overhaul for the transit system today, NBC Washington reports. Essentially, the NTSB—an independent federal agency—wants the Federal Railroad Administration within the U.S. Department of Transportation to take over for the Tri-State Oversight Committee, which currently monitors Metro. The TOC has six members, drawing from the District’s, Maryland’s, and Virginia’s departments of transportation. Unlike the FRA, though, it cannot impose fines, civil actions, or other penalties based on its findings—those have to come from state legislatures (in the District’s case, that means the D.C. Council and ultimately Congress). The TOC also lacks the same engineering resources and expertise the FRA boasts—still, the latter doesn’t oversee many city subway systems.
USDOT’s press secretary, Namrata Kolachalam, released the following statement:
“The safety management by [Metro] and safety oversight by the Tri-State Oversight Committee are unacceptable, as we outlined in audits and approved corrective action requirements. The Department of Transportation is exploring all options to improve this record, including a range of approaches that will allow us to directly increase Federal safety oversight of Metro. We will take this NTSB recommendation into consideration during this process.”
Metro most recently got into hot water with riders on Sept. 21, when a transformer near the Stadium–Armory station caught fire, leading to service changes that are still in effect. The following day, riders had to be evacuated from a Green and Yellow line tunnel due to another power outage. No one was injured in these incidents, but back in January, more than 80 passengers became ill and one died because of a smoke incident near the L’Enfant Plaza station. The Federal Transit Administration approved a “correction action plan” for the rail system consisting of about 80 safety fixes last week.
Reached early this afternoon, Metro spokesperson Sherri Ly said the agency did not yet have any comment on the expected NTSB recommendations.
We will update this story as more information becomes available.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery