Senators Warn of Possible ‘Federal Intervention’ in D.C. Transit System

Four senior members of the Senate Banking Committee today warned Washington D.C.'s transit agency that "direct federal intervention" in the local Metrorail system could be the next step if officials did not move to remedy an "unacceptable" safety record that includes a series of recent crashes and near-misses, capped by a derailment 10 days ago.

In a bipartisan letter to Peter Benjamin, chairman of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), the senators noted that 17 deaths have occurred on the Metrorail system since 2005, "far outpacing the number of fatalities on any mass transit system in the country." The D.C. area accidents helped prompt the Obama administration to propose new legislation carving out a federal role in rail transit safety oversight.

The letter -- signed by Banking Committee chairman Chris Dodd (D-CT) and ranking Republican Richard Shelby (AL) as well as Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and David Vitter (R-LA), who lead the committee's transit panel -- says that "the federal government should consider all possible options to ensure the safety of the Metrorail system, including direct federal intervention" if WMATA cannot demonstrate its readiness to do the job.

It is unclear what such "federal intervention" in a local transit network would look like, but WMATA is currently operating without a successor to John Catoe, who will step down as the agency's general manager in April. Starting tomorrow, the National Transportation Safety Board will hold a three-day hearing on the June Metrorail crash that killed nine riders.

A complete copy of the senators' letter to Benjamin is available after the jump.

Dear Mr. Benjamin:

As Senators charged with overseeing federal transit policy, we write to express our concern regarding the safety record of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s (WMATA) Metrorail system.  The derailment of a Metrorail train on February 12, 2010, is the latest in a series of safety incidents, several of them fatal.  We understand that WMATA is in the process of reforming its safety operations and request a briefing on these efforts.  We believe it is imperative that such systemic failures be appropriately addressed and resolved as quickly as possible to provide peace of mind to the millions of riders in the national capital region. 

The Red Line derailment near the Farragut North Metrorail station on February 12, 2010, is part of a troubling pattern of safety incidents involving the Metrorail system.  In total, the Metrorail system has witnessed 17 deaths in seven separate incidents over the past five years, far outpacing the number of fatalities on any other mass transit system in the country.  Last June, nine people were killed and 80 were injured in a much publicized train collision.  In addition, Metrorail has experienced numerous tragic accidents including the deaths of five Metrorail employees working on the tracks in the past year, part of a total of nine such worker fatalities since 2005.  Indeed, since 2002 WMATA has accounted for 42 percent of all track-worker fatalities in the nation.  Additionally, WMATA has experienced a number of non-fatal incidents including a collision in 2004; derailments in 2007 and 2008; and a derailment, a near-miss, and a crash that injured three workers in 2009.  

WMATA’s safety record is unacceptable.  Such a pattern cannot be viewed as a string of isolated “accidents.”  Rather, it is clear that there is an institutional failure on the part of WMATA.  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. 

In recent months the Committee has heard from representatives of WMATA and the Tri-State Oversight Committee regarding the system’s persistent safety failures, as well as efforts to address those failures.  However, these steps do not appear to fully address the systemic failures with WMATA.  Again, we believe it is imperative to hear from WMATA regarding its plans for addressing the immediate issues, as well as a long-term comprehensive plan for ensuring that WMATA riders can once again feel safe and secure using the Metrorail system.