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NTSB makes 'urgent' request for FRA to oversee WMATA rail safety


The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) yesterday issued an "urgent" call for the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to take direct oversight of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's (WMATA) operation of the Metrorail system.

The safety recommendation comes as part of the NTSB’s ongoing investigation into the Jan. 12 smoke and electrical arcing accident in a tunnel near the L’Enfant Plaza Metro Station in Washington, D.C. In June, the NTSB examined the safety oversight of WMATA's rail operations in an investigative hearing and found little improvement since the 2009 Metrorail accident in Fort Totten that killed nine people.

Testimony at that hearing confirmed that the present oversight body known as the Tri-State Oversight Committee (TOC) relies on WMATA to respond to safety concerns and lacks the power to issue orders or levy fines. The Federal Transit Administration, which primarily relies on oversight agencies such as the TOC to fill the oversight role at the state level, has said that the TOC “falls far short” in its role, according to an NTSB press release.

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

In its recent safety recommendation letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, the NTSB said that in the past 33 years, it had launched 11 investigations of WMATA rail accidents that had killed 18 people. Many of those investigations involved WMATA’s inadequate management of safety operations, the press release statement.

The board is asking the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) to seek congressional authority to designate WMATA a "commuter authority" so that the FRA can take over safety oversight. The board also asked for USDOT to implement a plan to transition oversight from the TOC to the FRA within six months from the date such authority is granted.

The FRA currently regulates passenger, freight and commuter railroads, including seven urban rail systems in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast that have been designated as commuter authorities.

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

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