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Local fed lawmakers eye new subway safety standards

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Local,Transportation,Kytja Weir

The region’s congressional delegation is looking into creating federal safety standards to regulate subway systems in the wake of the recent Metro crash that killed nine and injured more than 70 people.

A House subcommittee is set to hold a hearing on the crash today, but local leaders say they want to find a way to regulate agencies that face no set of standards.

“We believe we can and should take action to begin the effort for national standards,” D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton told The Examiner. “We have national standards for almost everything. Why would we not have standards on this?”

Especially of concern, she and others say, are standards for crashworthiness of rail cars, such as the 1000 Series involved in the June 22 crash that Metro had been told to replace or retrofit three years ago.

It is not clear how such regulations would work or who would oversee them. Stephanie Lundberg, spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the delegation planned to examine how to create standards. “It requires further examination,” she said.

Metro, like other transit systems, does not face any federal safety standards as do the airlines, freight and commuter trains. Transit systems do not face penalties when they fail to operate safely.

Instead, a network of self-enforced rules and a checkerboard of oversight bodies watch over them but lack the carrots and the sticks to force transit systems to operate safely.

“There has been a failure from Congress to take action on the obvious,” said Jim Hall, National Transportation Safety Board chairman from 1994 to 2001.

Hall and others have been pushing for more federal oversight of transit agencies for more than a decade. But this time, the push may stand a better chance because the crash occurred in the nation’s capital.

Subway systems have fallen through the cracks as states have oversight systems that vary as much as the transit systems do.

California’s oversight agency, for example, has stopped transit systems from running if they didn’t meet safety criteria. However, some

Metro and local officials say they don’t know what the Tri-State Oversight Committee has done in its role over Metro.
“I didn’t even know they existed,” Norton told The Examiner. “They certainly don’t have any enforcement authority, as we don’t know of anything they’ve done.”

Metro Chairman Jim Graham said he could not name any actions the group has taken and supports new standards.

“We welcome this type of regulatory supervision. We want it,”  he said. “We cannot establish standards for railcar crashworthiness. This has to be a national endeavor.”

However, some say the industry may not need more regulation, as it already forms its own standards using top experts through the American Public Transportation Association. “We think we are writing better standards on a consensus basis than if written by decree,” said Martin Schroeder, APTA’s chief engineer in charge of the standards program. “The way we write standards is a very efficient and effective way.”

Some also point out that regulation may not end all accidents. “The dilemma is regulations and rules only go so far,” said Jeffrey Arndt, a Texas Transportation Institute research scientist. “We have rules that prohibit murder, yet there’s murders every day.”

Maria Schmitt contributed to this report.

kweir@washingtonexaminer.com

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