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Federal Transit Administration Acting Administrator Testifies About WMATA Metrorail Safety Oversight

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) temporary safety oversight of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority (WMATA) Metrorail system is seeing initial results across the system, FTA Acting Administrator Carolyn Flowers today told the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

“FTA is providing robust direct safety oversight that is identifying problems while at the same time guiding WMATA to implement needed safety changes,” said Flowers.  “For every positive safety action taken by WMATA, we must realize it has a long and difficult task ahead to instill the strong safety culture that is required for true and lasting change.”

Through a comprehensive Safety Management Inspection, three Safety Directives, two immediate action letters, and ongoing inspection and investigation activity FTA safety oversight is requiring WMATA to take numerous positive actions to improve safety for passengers and workers. Among these FTA oversight activities are 91 specific corrective actions that WMATA must implement to improve the safety of its Metrorail and Metrobus systems.  FTA-identified safety concerns where WMATA Metrorail has made improvements include:

  • Rail Operations Control Center:  At FTA’s direction, WMATA has instituted policies to instill a new culture of safety in the control center by prohibiting use of cell phones and other electronic devices, reducing non-critical alarm noise and other distractions, and establishing new procedures to ensure effective shift transition briefings. And for the first time since 2012, all WMATA rail traffic controllers have completed annual certifications. 
  • Smoke and Fire Events: WMATA’s SafeTrack plan gives first priority to FTA-identified track locations where urgent repairs are required to reduce the risk of smoke and fire events. WMATA also conducted system-wide infrared railcar testing of the third rail to identify traction power ‘hot spots’ and reduced the maximum authorized speed and acceleration speed on three high-risk track segments.  In addition, WMATA held a safety stand-down in response to FTA’s most recent safety directive with operating personnel and supervisors to discuss preventive inspection and maintenance requirements and how to manage smoke and fire emergencies if preventive efforts fail.
  • Fire and Life Safety: WMATA has corrected numerous instances of degraded fire and life safety equipment in tunnels that impact emergency passenger evacuations, including replacing burnt out lightbulbs, recharging fire extinguishers and clearing walkways of debris.
  • Roadway Worker Protection:  The last of nearly 2,000 employees with expired Right-of-Way Work Protection cards will be soon be retrained and certified. WMATA also held safety briefings for roadway workers, train operators, and rail traffic controllers to ensure they understand the rules that protect workers on the tracks. 

“While FTA is ensuring that WMATA makes necessary safety improvements, WMATA needs to ensure it is properly managing and resourcing its corrective safety actions and building internal safety capacity and culture.  We are encouraged that General Manager Paul Wiedefeld has proven a cooperative partner thus far,” stressed Flowers.

In October 2015, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx instructed FTA to assume direct and temporary safety oversight of WMATA Metrorail from the ineffective Tri-State Oversight Committee (TOC). FTA’s temporary role will continue only until Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia set up a new, fully-functioning State Safety Oversight Agency (SSOA) that FTA confirms complies with federal law—something the three jurisdictions have discussed since April 2010 and now say will not be done until 2017.

Flowers explained that WMATA is responsible for the safe operation of the Metrorail system, including the performance of daily inspections and preventative maintenance. FTA’s temporary role is to verify WMATA’s progress on implementing Corrective Action Plans and remedial actions, and to ensure that WMATA is effectively carrying out its own critical maintenance, operations, and safety training programs. From November 2015 through May 16, 2016, the FTA WMATA Safety Oversight team has conducted 170 inspections, identified 874 safety defects, closed 42 accident/incident investigation reports, and verified that WMATA has successfully implemented eight corrective action plans as it makes progress on dozens more.

Additionally, FTA is exercising its authority to direct WMATA’s use of Federal funds to prioritize safety projects and purposes, particularly in support of FTA required corrective actions, safety recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), and state of good repair infrastructure improvements, including third rail rehabilitation. For example, FTA is requiring that WMATA hold in reserve $20 million in Federal funds for urgent safety issues that may arise, rather than expending those funds on two non-safety related projects as WMATA originally requested. 

The U.S. Congress first granted FTA the authority to oversee the safety of public transportation with the passage of the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) in 2012. In 2015, Congress further strengthened FTA safety oversight with the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST).

A copy of the full written testimony can be found here.

Updated: Friday, June 10, 2016
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