WASHINGTON – No other mass transit system in the country racked up as many fatal accidents as the Washington Metrorail in the past five years, with 17 deaths in seven separate incidents since October 2005 — a statistic that’s prompted a call for new federal safety standards and oversight.
The National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal agency responsible for investigating fatal and severe accidents, said that of its eight ongoing transit investigations, three involve fatal Metrorail incidents, according to NTSB spokesman Ted Lopatkiewicz.
The probe into the deaths Tuesday of two Metrorail workers on the Red Line near Rockville is the most recent of the three NTSB investigations.
The remaining five include a May 2008 elevated train derailment in Chicago, the November 2008 Miami Airport shuttle crash, a May 2009 trolley collision in Boston, the July 2009 monorail collision at Disney World and a July 2009 light rail collision in San Francisco. The operator of the Disney monorail train was the only fatality among the five other accidents.
Two other people were killed this year in accidents related to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which operates Metrorail: a subcontractor who was electrocuted while working in a Metrobus garage in August, and a District resident who was struck by a Metrobus in October.
Other recent Metrorail incidents have resulted in injuries, but were not severe enough to warrant an NTSB investigation. There was a non-fatal collision in 2004, and derailments in 2007 and 2008. In 2009, there was a derailment, a near-miss that almost resulted in a collision, and one crash that injured three workers.
With so many high-profile accidents in or near Washington, Metrorail has caught the attention of the federal government.
Peter Rogoff, administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, said in a statement on Tuesday that WMATA accounts for 42 percent of all track worker fatalities in the nation since 2002.
“(T)hese are indicative of a systemic problem that WMATA must address immediately,” Rogoff said.
The Tri-State Oversight Committee is the only body charged with overseeing WMATA, but critics have pointed out in recent months that it has no real legal or regulatory authority.
Rogoff said it is “unacceptable that FTA is prohibited by law from addressing this problem head on,” and called for Congress to pass transit safety reform legislation.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Baltimore, introduced the National Metro Safety Act in July 2009, and told a Senate panel in December that there should be federal safety standards and oversight.
While Mikulski has fought for federal funding to upgrade Metrorail as a senior member of the Senate Transportation and Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee, she has directed harsh criticism toward WMATA leadership.
“I have no confidence in Metro,” she told the December panel, adding, “There is a pattern of laxity, passivity and lip service.”
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has also taken up the cause of Metro safety, introducing the Transportation Safety Program Act of 2009 in December.
The act would give the Department of Transportation authority to create and enforce federal safety standards for rail transit systems not already regulated by the Federal Railroad Administration, such as Metrorail. It would also ensure funding, as well as financial independence from the systems they oversee, for state oversight agencies to meet federal safety standards.
LaHood said in a statement that the Tuesday accident “is a very painful reminder of the importance of safety in every aspect of public transportation and underscores the importance of bringing rail transit safety legislation to the president’s desk for signature.”