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