Urgent Recommendations on WMATA Safety Oversight, Explained

By Chairman Christopher A. Hart

A WMATA 5000-Series train arrives at Anacostia, a station on the Green Line of the Washington Metro. Credit: Ben Shumin via WikipediaOn September 30, we announced two urgent safety recommendations which, if acted upon, will help improve safety for Metrorail riders. The recommendations urge the Department of Transportation to seek legislative authority to put WMATA safety oversight under the Federal Railroad Administration instead of the Federal Transit Administration, and once the authority is granted, to develop an oversight transition plan.

Let me explain the details.

WMATA Is a Unique System

WMATA’s Metrorail system is the only transit system in the country that serves three jurisdictions – Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. Under the present structure, all of those jurisdictions have to agree on how to create a process to provide effective safety oversight of WMATA.

What Additional ‘Safety Oversight’ Does WMATA’s Metrorail Need?

WMATA’s current safety oversight body is the Tri-State Oversight Commission, or the TOC. But in our safety investigations of WMATA accidents, we’ve found that, among other challenges, the TOC:

  • Is not independent
  • Has no safety regulations
  • Does no on-site inspections, and
  • Has no enforcement tools

If the TOC recommends that WMATA fix a safety issue, it is up to WMATA’s management to decide whether to follow TOC’s recommendation; and if they decide to follow the recommendation, it is up to WMATA’s management to decide how and when to do so.

Safety Oversight Under the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) Framework

Why is TOC part of the safety oversight process?  Because the Federal Transit Administration relies on state safety agencies for its safety oversight of transit systems. So under the FTA model, state-level agencies have to be strong.

The TOC fills this state safety oversight role for WMATA. But the TOC consists of only three full-time employees, and it has no on-site inspectors or safety enforcement authority. The FTA has stated that it cannot certify the TOC as a state safety oversight agency, in part because the TOC lacks some of the capabilities listed above.

Moving Safety Oversight to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)

There is precedent for the FRA oversight of WMATA that we have recommended because there are some transit agencies in this country that are currently under FRA safety oversight. For example, the FRA provides direct oversight over the New York and New Jersey PATH system instead of using state safety oversight agencies.

The FRA has safety regulations for equipment, track, signals and operations. It also has safety inspection and enforcement resources that could be on Metrorail property soon after the transition takes effect. The FRA also has the authority to issue civil penalties, compliance orders, and emergency orders to correct safety hazards and remove track and equipment from service.

New Safety Oversight Would Take Years Under the FTA Framework

The TOC, the three jurisdictions, and the FTA all agree that standing up a stronger state-level safety oversight agency would require legislation in all three jurisdictions and would take several years. But there’s a safety gap now, because the TOC cannot provide the level of safety oversight that is needed for Metrorail.

Closing the Safety Gap Now

Our urgent recommendations, if acted upon, will provide safety oversight for WMATA and help close the safety gap. Riders of the Metrorail deserve no less.

You can read our press release on the recommendations here.

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