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Senators warn to improve 'unacceptable' safety record

By: Kytja Weir
Examiner Staff Writer
February 23, 2010


 On the eve of federal safety hearings into Metro's deadly June 22 crash, four senators sent a letter to Metro warning that federal officials will intervene if the transit agency does not improve its "unacceptable" safety record.

"Such a pattern cannot be viewed as a string of isolated 'accidents,' rather, it is clear that there is an institutional failure," said the letter from Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee Sens. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., Richard Shelby, R-Ala., Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and David Vitter, R-La.

"If these failures cannot be addressed immediately and comprehensively, then we believe that the federal government should consider all possible options to ensure the safety of the Metrorail system, including direct federal intervention."

The letter, sent to Metro Chairman Peter Benjamin, was prompted by the Feb. 12 derailment of a packed train at Farragut North that caused minor injuries to three passengers and tied up commuters. It was just the latest of what the senators called "a troubling pattern of safety incidents."

A Metro spokeswoman said the agency will set up a meeting with lawmakers to explain how it is trying to improve safety.

The senators did not spell out how the federal government could intervene, but it was sent the same day that the committee introduced federal legislation to improve national safety oversight of subway systems prompted by Metro's deadly June crash, which killed nine people and injured more than 70 others.

The letter and legislation are just start of a long week for Metro.

The National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday will begin three days of hearings into the crash, with the accident serving as a springboard to illustrate the flaws of the agency's safety culture and how oversight is lacking over transit systems nationwide.

Since 2004, eight of the 17 NTSB investigations into transit accidents have focused on Metro, far more than any other transit agency.

Four accidents remain under investigation, including the June 22 crash. All the accidents have occurred in the past eight months, but even then the independent safety board chose not to investigate several deadly accidents that happened in that time: two Metro workers who were fatally struck by trains in separate incidents and a contractor who was electrocuted at a bus garage.

"There's an interest not just because it's in the nation's capital but also because it is being subsidized by the federal government and in the subsidy of its ridership," said Jim Hall, a former NTSB chairman.

Hall said Metro has shown "a reluctance to provide transparency and openness to its customers and the oversight structure."

To reverse course, he said, the agency needs to establish a new safety structure that can respond to NTSB recommendations, welcome outside safety audits and strive to point out to riders what it is doing to make the system safer.


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