Little Oversight Of D.c 'S Metro

Mikulski, Edwards' Bill Would Set Federal Safety Standards For Subways

August 10, 2009|By The Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- Before June's deadly subway crash, no federal agency stepped in to ensure that the Metro commuter rail system found and fixed the electrical circuits now suspected of contributing to the worst accident in the system's history.

That's because none is authorized to. Although the federal government regulates the safe operation of buses, Amtrak, airplanes and even ferries, it cedes primary oversight of subway safety to local panels - in the case of Metro, the little-known Tri-State Oversight Committee.

The committee has no direct regulatory authority over safety and cannot order Metro to make changes. It has no employees of its own and no dedicated office, phone or Web site. It borrows space for its monthly meetings, which officials said no member of the public has ever attended.

"No one knows we exist," acknowledged vice chairman Matthew Bassett.

The Federal Transit Administration and congressional auditors have described the committee in the past as lacking resources and having a cumbersome administrative process. Federal officials say the amount of time the committee and its contractors devoted to safety oversight last year was the equivalent of less than two full-time employees.

The committee was thrust into public view this week after it released records trevealing that in March, a Metro train on Capitol Hill came "dangerously close" to another, halting only after the operator hit the emergency brake. The incident was described in an April 29 letter in which the committee asked Metro to investigate and report back. The committee has no power to demand a response and, to date, the committee says Metro has made no formal report to it on the incident.

Since the June 22 tragedy that claimed nine lives and injured 80 people, momentum has been building for federal regulation of subway systems nationwide.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has created a committee of senior agency officials to find ways to close what his department describes as a gap in oversight, created by ceding safety issues to regional transit authorities.

And on Capitol Hill, Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland has introduced legislation that would create new federal safety standards for subway and elevated train systems. A companion bill was introduced in the House by Democratic Rep. Donna Edwards, who represents parts of Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

Critics welcome the initiatives, charging that under the current system members of the Tri-State Oversight Committee in effect oversee themselves.

"What exists is a sham and can't be made to work," said Jack Corbett of MetroRiders.org, a Washington-based nonprofit. "People who are on [the committee] are employees of the entities they would regulate. The head of the committee works for the District Department of Transportation. If their job was to ensure safety, they would be telling their bosses what to do. It's a built-in conflict of interest."

Some state-level regulators have far more authority. The subway system in San Francisco, which is subject to muscular oversight by state regulators, discovered problems with flickering circuits and was directed to install a collision-avoidance backup system decades ago.

Tri-State Oversight Committee members stress that they are serious about safety and say they have made recent improvements. Indeed, there is no guarantee that any regulator, no matter how powerful and well-funded, could have guaranteed discovery of the disruptions in the crash-avoidance circuits now suspected of playing a part in the subway crash.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators have not pinpointed the cause of the June crash, in which one train rammed another between stations. But the NTSB says it appears that Metro's control system failed to detect a stopped train and that an approaching one did not receive a command to stop.

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