Transit Safety Shuffle in the Nation’s Capital

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Metro trains arrive in the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro station Tuesday, March 15, 2016 in Washington. The head of the rail system that serves the nation's capital and its Virginia and Maryland suburbs says the system will shut down for a full day Wednesday after a fire near one of the system's tunnels. 

The entire Washington, D.C., subway system shut down for an emergency safety inspection for 29 hours last week, forcing thousands of District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia residents to find other ways to navigate the region. The Federal Transit Administration is the lead agency in charge of safety oversight on the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority, the only local agency in the United States that the FTA oversees. With the FTA (which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation) charged with oversight for the system, you would think that federal officials were on the scene as their WMATA counterparts the inspected the subway.

You would be wrong. No FTA or other Department of Transportation inspectors took part in the unprecedented safety blitz that discovered major problems with nearly 30 power cables.

Asked why federal inspectors did not participate, a DOT spokesman told The American Prospect, “WMATA conducted the inspection without DOT participation. In its safety oversight role of WMATA, the Federal Transit Administration monitors the actions WMATA takes to maintain the safety of its system. In this case, FTA will perform a close examination of WMATA’s inspection findings.”

Given the magnitude of the safety issues confronting the Washington Metro, this is an oversight, no pun intended, of staggering proportions. Moreover, it raises the question once again of why the Federal Railroad Administration, an agency that combines expertise in rail safety with a reputation for taking those issues very seriously, has been shunted aside in a favor of the FTA, an agency with little demonstrable experience in rail safety issues.

The FTA did conduct safety management inspections after a 2015 electrical malfunction produced smoke in a tunnel that killed an Alexandria, Virginia, woman on a stalled train. But putting the FTA in charge of the region’s transit safety so alarmed the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigated fatal accidents on Metrorail in 2009 and 2015, that NTSB officials delivered a highly unusual rebuke to Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, who gave oversight authority last year to the FTA after the NTSB recommended that the Railroad Administration be given the nod.

In its February memorandum, the NTSB declared the secretary’s response “unacceptable” and vowed to keep the matter “open.” The Board offered a pointed critique of Foxx’s decision: “We believe there are many uncertainties associated with the proposed FTA approach to WMATA oversight. Our recommendations for WMATA to be ruled a commuter authority and for the FRA to assume oversight responsibility for WMATA Metrorail eliminates these uncertainties because the FRA is an experienced and appropriately staffed regulatory safety oversight agency.”

If the NTSB is not amused, imagine the conundrum facing the USDOT Inspector General’s office. Late last year, after the Board weighed in the Inspector General’s office registered its own concerns that the FTA “may face a significant challenge” in handling WMATA safety. Indeed, the Inspector General’s office launched an audit of the FTA late last year.

It wasn’t the office’s first such audit. In a January 2012 audit, the Inspector General’s office noted: “Under current law, the FTA is responsible primarily for administering billions of dollars annually in infrastructure investment grants, with few staff to provide guidance to [state safety oversight agencies]. [Under the latest federal transportation authorization] FTA’s transit safety role would be expanded to include direct oversight and enforcement of the national safety program. The FTA has developed a strategic plan for reorganizing … if it receives enhanced safety oversight authority. However, to meet this expanded role, FTA would likely require additional skills that it currently lacks.”

Ostensibly, the reason for giving primacy to the Federal Transit Agency over the Federal Railroad Agency lies in jurisdictional issues. The FRA handles freight rail and Amtrak. However, the FRA does oversee PATH, the New York City-New Jersey commuter rail network

The FRA also has the reputation of being vigilant and fearless about safety. If FRA inspectors find issues with a train car that poses even a minor risk to passengers and crew members during an inspection, that car comes out of service, schedules be damned. The FTA does oversee subways systems like Washington Metro but outside Washington, it relies more heavily on the judgment of state-level safety agencies. Because federal officials decided that the D.C. regional safety agency wasn’t up to the job, the FTA has sole jurisdiction.

In light of the NTSB’s February objections, The American Prospect asked the DOT spokesman if the department planned to reconsider its decision to give safety oversight to the FTA. The answer was no. “We take NTSB recommendations very seriously. ... However, we remain confident that FTA has the necessary industry knowledge and enforcement authority to issue directives and assume temporary safety oversight of a transit agency,” the DOT spokesman said.  “It is also more efficient and effective, until Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia create a new, federally-required, and compliant state safety oversight agency.”

The day after Washington Metro general manager Paul Wiedefeld ordered the subway shutdown, two more incidents occurred. One involved a smoke-filled train that passengers fled, a situation that was eerily reminiscent of the 2009 accident. Another incident saw a man dragged along a subway platform after his bag got caught in a door. “The NTSB says there is not one thing that brings down an airliner. It’s usually a series of very small things all linked together that eventually bring down that airplane,” says Chris Barnes, a WMATA Riders’ Advisory Council member. “That’s kind of what I see at Metro.”

WMATA, District, Maryland, and Virginia officials, members of Congress, and federal transportation agency heads appear to have formed a circular firing squad in critiquing the transit system. But blame games rarely solve problems. The FTA may have the safety oversight authority for WMATA but having that authority is not the same as exercising it in subway tunnels. 

The federal government should exercise the proper authority over WMATA even if that means deploying people and agency resources in a way that has never been done before—like sending down to Washington a few of the federal rail inspectors who oversee PATH. Unless the Department of Transportation deploys its best and brightest rail safety experts to break the vicious cycle of Metrorail dysfunction, the current differences of opinion in the federal bureaucracy over who should handle what at WMATA could prove deadly once again for residents and visitors in the nation’s capital city. 

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