WASHINGTON – The federal government will enforce safety rules on Metro and other public transit systems under a proposal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood introduced at a Senate subcommittee hearing Thursday.
Transit rail systems such as Metro are the only form of public transportation that operates without unified federal oversight, LaHood said in his testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Housing, Transportation and Community Development.
“Each rail transit system is permitted to determine its own safety practices,” he said. “This results in the patchwork of 27 separate state oversight programs.”
The comments come as Metro is under scrutiny for a series of fatalities and accidents beginning with a horrific Red Line crash near the Fort Totten station in June that killed eight passengers and a driver.
LaHood’s proposal provides that the federal government will directly enforce any future safety rules adopted. States could enforce these rules through their own transit agencies, but would have to obtain federal certification to do so. The proposal also requires state agencies enforcing safety rules to be financially independent from the transit systems they oversee.
“We seek to ensure that states will now have the manpower and training and the enforcement tools to conduct meaningful oversight,” LaHood said.
Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski also testified at the hearing to discuss a bill she introduced in July. That bill would authorize the Department of Transportation to establish safety standards for transit rail systems. It is prohibited from doing so under current law.
Mikulski emphasized the urgency of federal regulation in the aftermath of the summer crash and the deaths of several Metro workers on the job since.
“In the past year, there have been 11 deaths on Metro,” Mikulski said. “This wasn’t a terrorist bomb on the tracks, this wasn’t a drunk driver cutting in front of the train, this was Metro equipment that failed the people who were riding it and failed the people who were working on it.”
Mikulski’s bill also calls on the federal government to implement National Transportation Safety Board recommendations to improve crashworthiness — the ability of a train car to withstand a crash. Another provision recommends installing data recorders on trains, making it easier for investigators to determine the cause of a crash.
The recommendations in her bill, Mikulski said, will complement LaHood’s proposal as Congress and the Department of Transportation work together to decide which safety standards to adopt and enforce.
Mikulski was highly critical of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority, citing in particular Metro’s recent refusal to let independent monitors observe safety procedures on its tracks.
“My observation about the Metro management is, they think that having a meeting about the problem is solving the problem,” Mikulski said. “There is a pattern of laxity, passivity and lip service.”
Metro’s general manager, John Catoe Jr., said government funding has not kept pace with the needs of an aging transit system, impairing Metro’s ability to ensure riders are safe. He also supports federal enforcement of safety standards.
“I believe the federal government should take a more active role to ensure consistency in the quality of oversight across the country,” Catoe said.
Riders of the Metro system are still concerned, despite Metro’s stricter hiring standards and tougher disciplinary measures for safety violations since the Red Line crash, according to Catoe.
John Fairbanks, 61, of Rockville, said ensuring that trains can better withstand a crash is essential to making Metro rides safer. He welcomed the idea of federal oversight, saying “if they don’t already have safety standards in place, they should.”
Other riders maintain that riding Metro is still the safest way to get to and from work.
“I have very limited concerns about Metro safety. It’s safer than taking my car anyway,” said Jim Morin, 30, of Herndon, Va. “I just wish they’d finish the extension to Dulles already.”