NTSB Urges FRA to Commence Oversight of Washington Metrorail

The current oversight body is hampered by its structure: Three jurisdictions trade the leadership position, and it cannot levy penalties or halt revenue service, according to the board.

The National Transportation Safety Board this week called for the Federal Railroad Administration to commence direct federal safety oversight of Washington's Metrorail system, with NTSB's chairman saying in a letter that the current oversight body, the Tri-State Oversight Committee (TOC), cannot issue orders or fines and has no regulatory or enforcement authority. The letter comes as NTSB investigates the Jan. 12, 2015, smoke and electrical arcing accident in a tunnel near the L'Enfant Plaza Metro Station in Washington, D.C., but the letter refers to an Aug. 6, 2015, derailment of a non-revenue train near the Smithsonian station that crystallizes the problems NTSB wants to solve.

The derailment occurred because the tracks in one section near the station were too far apart -- a condition known as a wide gage incident. WMATA, the Washington regional transit authority, discovered that the problem existed for 27 days before the derailment, from July 9 to Aug. 6, and that numerous WMATA passenger trains passed over it during that period with no speed limitations in place.

NTSB's Chairman Christopher Hart's letter says the safety board "is concerned about the ongoing challenges to effective safety oversight of WMATA."

"There is now a lack of independent safety oversight of Metrorail,’" Hart said. "This is an unacceptable gap in system safety."

The board is asking DOT to seek authority from Congress to designate WMATA a "commuter authority" so the Federal Railroad Administration can exercise direct safety oversight and also to implement a plan to transition oversight from the TOC to the FRA within six months after authority is granted. Currently, the TOC is a state safety oversight agency (SSOA) with its leadership frequently changing because three jurisdictions (Washington, D.C., and the states of Maryland Virginia) regularly trade off leadership of the TOC. Congress put SSOAs in charge of overseeing the safety of rail transit systems within their borders starting in 1991; there are now 32 SSOAs overseeing 50 rail transit agencies, but WMATA is the only agency among them that crosses three jurisdictions' boundaries, according to the letter.

While Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia last year proposed a new body to replace the TOC, it could not be ready to take on that responsibility for several years, according to a white paper they referenced.

"The FRA has rules today. The TOC has none. The FRA has hundreds of highly trained professional railroad inspectors. The TOC has no inspectors," said Hart. NTSB has asked DOT to respond within 30 days to these safety recommendations, which the safety board classified as "urgent."

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