Tag Archives: WMATA

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.

Making Rail Transit Safer – In Our Own Backyard

By Mark Rosekind, PhD

Memb er Rosekind at the unveiling of the new WMATA train carsSummer in Washington and the city’s bustling Metrorail transit system is packed with tourists, interns, and the usual daily commuters including those I work with at the NTSB. It seems a fitting time to focus on rail transit safety, one of the agency’s Most Wanted List items of national transportation safety priorities.

Last week, I spoke to a gathering of the American Public Transportation Association’s (APTA) transit board members on what the NTSB does and how its recommendations enhance the traveling public’s safety.

I used the opportunity to highlight a success story from the agency’s own hometown, where a horrible tragedy and the NTSB’s Recommendations from that tragedy have helped make the nation’s second busiest rapid transit system, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s (WMATA) “Metro,” safer than ever. To quote former NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman, “[It] has gone from worst to first” in safety.

The NTSB just recently closed three Recommendations issued in the aftermath of the 2009 Fort Totten Metro collision in which a lead rail car struck a stopped train. Nine people were killed and 52 were injured. Metro has worked hard to improve from that sad day and there is more good news. Of the 16 new Recommendations that came from that crash, the transit authority is setting its sights to close the remaining ones involing longer-term projects – such as replacement of Metro’s entire 1000-series fleet with new, safer 7000-series railcars. The first 7000-series trains are expected to enter service late this year and I recently rode one still under trials.

It was an eye-opening experience. These new railcars will provide Metro riders with some of the latest innovations in protection and safety. They are designed for greater crashworthiness and increased durability with advancements in technology that will help prevent future tragedies like the Ft. Totten crash.

The NTSB has made a total of 29 safety Recommendations to WMATA over the years and only five remain to be closed including the 7000-series railcar replacement. This is a noteworthy achievement and reflects the benefits of having a willing, conscientious transportation operator that can take the NTSB’s Recommendations and use them as a roadmap for greater safety. In the five years since Fort Totten, Metro has improved safety on multiple fronts…railcars…infrastructure…organizational culture. It is good to see and more remains to be done, because we never want to have another crash like Ft. Totten occur, but also because this is the transit system that serves all Americans in the nation’s capital, visitors, tourists, interns, and the general public. It must serve as a model for the country and the world. That begins with safety.

Mark Rosekind, Ph.D., is a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board. He is a frequent contributor to the NTSB blog.