Feds: Metro must do more to ensure safety

Capitol South MetroCapitol South at rush hour (Metro photo by Larry Levine)

The Federal Transit Administration credits the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority (WMATA) Metrorail system with implementing overdue safety measures but in testimony before the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform panel Friday said it must do more.

“While FTA has seen improvements at WMATA, significant work remains to bring the Metrorail system into a state of good repair, develop and improve WMATA’s safety culture, and improve WMATA’s financial outlook,” FTA executive director Matthew Welbes said. “WMATA must continue to prioritize safety over service, and commit to providing customers and workers with the assurance that their safety is the first priority.”

Welbes said WMATA leadership has taken significant steps in prioritizing safety over revenue service; however, “establishing and ensuring an enduring safety culture is the critical task ahead.” Welbes also made clear that FTA’s oversight role is temporary and will continue only until the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia set up a new State Safety Oversight Agency (SSOA) for WMATA.

In the meantime, FTA is performing direct safety oversight of WMATA through its inspection and investigation authority, as well as its authority to redirect federal funding to safety critical actions.

Since October 2015, the FTA has published investigation reports identifying systemic safety problems at WMATA, issued safety directives requiring specific corrective actions and conducted more than 300 inspections across the Metrorail system requiring more than 900 remedial actions; WMATA has addressed two-thirds of these required actions. In a number of instances, WMATA has imposed immediate orders to slow trains or close track entirely in response to FTA inspections that identified poor operating practices and track conditions.

Because of FTA oversight, all rail traffic controllers in the Metrorail Rail Operations Control Center have completed their required annual certifications for the first time since 2012 and approximately 2,000 employees who had expired Roadway Worker Protection program certifications are now retrained and certified to work on the tracks.

In addition, FTA directives guided WMATA prioritization of SafeTrack work to locations where urgent repairs were most required to reduce the risk of smoke and fire events, Welbes said. As a result, WMATA corrected numerous instances of degraded fire and life safety equipment in tunnels that affect emergency passenger evacuations.

Welbes stressed that the SafeTrack repairs are necessary and long overdue, and that once made, “they must be sustained with a long-term preventative maintenance plan as well as a strong safety culture or else WMATA will fall right back to an unacceptable condition.” FTA’s Transit Asset Management Final Rule issued in July 2016 will support more strategic and safe management of transit assets nationwide.

In October 2015, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx instructed FTA to assume temporary and direct safety oversight of WMATA Metrorail to fulfill an immediate short-term need in light of serious incidents and safety lapses at WMATA, and the shortcomings of the Tri‑State Oversight Committee’s (TOC) oversight and enforcement authority. FTA’s temporary role will continue only until the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia establish a new State Safety Oversight Agency (SSOA), as required by federal law. More than six years ago, in April 2010, the three jurisdictions recognized the need to replace the TOC, saying it did not effectively respond to critical Metrorail safety oversight issues.

Importantly, in a February 2016 letter, FTA informed Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia that they must receive FTA certification of a new state safety oversight program— including creation of a new SSOA compliant with Federal requirements— by February 9, 2017.  Failure to meet this deadline could result in withholding up to $15 million in federal transit funding from 23 communities throughout Maryland, Virginia and the District.

FTA is preparing to transition safety oversight to the new SSOA in 2017. Until the new SSOA is capable of carrying out its responsibilities, FTA will continue to provide safety oversight for Metrorail to ensure that WMATA is providing for the safety of its riders and workers.
A copy of the written testimony can be found here.


About the Author

Truman Lewis
A former reporter and bureau chief, Truman Lewis has covered presidential campaigns, state politics and stories ranging from organized crime to environmental and consumer protection.