Metro Transit System May Come Under Federal Jurisdiction Following Crash

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Officials at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (commonly known as Metro) announced the purchase of 428 new train cars on July 27th-the same day that the National Transportation Safety Bureau released its findings regarding the crash on Metro’s Red Line on June 22 of 2009, in which nine people died.

The NTSB report characterized the accident as being preventable, blaming the failure of track circuit monitors, which should have detected that a parked train was already on the tracks. The agency highlighted a lack of safety oversight at Metro and made numerous recommendations for safety improvements.

Metro was quick to point out that among the NTSB’s recommendations is replacement of their aging “1000 series” cars, which the purchase of new cars will do.

But in announcing the recommendations, NTSB chair Deborah Hersman characterized Metro as “tone-deaf” and said that Metro has not implemented many previous NTSB recommendations. In fact, Metro didn’t follow its own safety precautions, such as a test for this very sort of track monitor developed following a 2005 near-crash.

NTSB Recommendations and Federal Enforcement

Much of the NTSB’s frustration may stem from the fact that their recommendations are just that – recommendations. As of today, there is no federal body that has the power to enforce regulations on local subway systems. The NTSB suggests that the Federal Transit Administration be given oversight authority for local rail systems such as Metro, and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood agrees.

The Senate Banking Committee (which has authority over transit issues) recently introduced a bill giving the FTA authority to establish federal safety standards for transit systems, and to give the secretary of transportation enforcement authority.

Maryland’s senators have also been vocal in their desire to bring federal enforcement to transportation organizations like Metro. Maryland senators Barbara Mikulski and Benjamin Cardin appeared together for a commemoration of the one year anniversary of the crash last month, and Senator Mikulski introduced her own bill to bring Metro under federal enforcement last year, as well as appearing when the Obama administration announced a similar bill this spring.

Whether any of these bills which would bring Metro under federal enforcement will become law is unknown, but the attention paid to the NTSB’s recommendations – and Metro’s past failures to correct its safety procedures – gives the issue increased scrutiny and thus makes federal enforcement more likely.