Metro's horrific June 2009 Red Line crash, which killed nine people and injured dozens more, provided the final impetus for Congress to change a 1965 law prohibiting the U.S. Department of Transportation from regulating subway and light-rail systems nationwide, even those that do not cross state lines. Federal officials are now in the process of drafting minimal uniform safety standards for all U.S. transit agencies.
Metrorail serves Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, so not only is federal oversight over this interstate authority justified, it is sorely needed in an agency characterized by National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Deborah Hersman as having "inadequate" safety procedures and "an anemic safety culture."
The NTSB's Red Line crash investigation found serious safety problems beyond the malfunctioning circuit that caused it, including the fact that Metro employees routinely ignored computerized warnings because there were so many of them. Metro riders were also aghast to learn that the Tri-State Oversight Commission supposedly overseeing Metro's safety practices had no full-time employees and no enforcement power.
No wonder this toothless tiger's recommendations were also ignored by Metro. Due to decades of neglect and misplaced priorities -- including excessive pay and benefit packages for Metro's unionized workforce -- the subway system that was once the pride and joy of Washington became an embarrassing hazard, with at least three serious accidents following the fatal 2009 crash.
No large rail system will ever be problem-free, but the sheer quantity of Metro mishaps -- ranging from derailments to late trains, overcrowded station platforms, broken escalators, malfunctioning doors and air conditioners, brake parts falling onto the tracks, locked emergency exits, etc. -- is symptomatic of a much larger problem.
Packed with political appointees from participating jurisdictions, the Metro board has done a terrible job overseeing the nation's second-busiest transit agency. Instead of demanding that Metro's bloated bureaucracy maintain minimal safety standards, the board allowed it to pay bus drivers six figures while the system fell into disrepair. With an equally inept board, Metro lacked any incentive to improve its performance, as former NTSB Managing Director Peter Goelz pointedly noted at a 2010 hearing on the Red Line crash: "It's not like an airline and you can ground them."
Well, now they can. Metro -- along with every other transit agency in the United States tempted to ignore basic safety rules -- is on notice that the feds will soon be looking over its shoulder.