The latest problems regarding safety on the Metrorail is but the latest in a long line of safety problems that go back decades – some say since the very beginning of the Metrorail system.
Others who’ve worked for Metro say getting repairs or any work done was a “constant battle,” with plenty of blame available to go around as to the cause.
In December 2009, the Tri-State Oversight Committee, Metro’s state-level safety oversight body which FTA later replaced, published a report that detailed an extensive list of workplace safety violations and a lack of a safety culture at WMATA.
TOC officials said in the report, it intensified its inspections of Metro after three separate incidents where four WMATA employees died on the job in 2005 and 2006. The TOC found WMATA employees using improper safety procedures including an instance where TOC inspectors, while on the job, were almost hit by an oncoming train.
“Though there were no injuries, the employees and review team members were forced to quickly scramble out of the way to avoid being struck by the train in question due to the speed with which it appeared to approach,” according to the 2009 TOC report.
Former WMATA employees said there was a lack of an adequate safety culture at WMATA, but were reluctant to describe specific cases out of fear of being identified by their former employer.
“That was the worse move of my life,” said a former high-level management employee at WMATA. “It was just a constant battle to get anything done -- a constant battle.”
One former WMATA employee said while upper-level management tried to implement safety reforms into Metro, they would seldom trickle down to the lower level employees.
Another former WMATA management employee disagreed, saying instead safety was the first concern of his department of WMATA.
“I guess from my perspective at least in the area I was involved with, safety was always at the forefront,” a former WMATA management employee said.
A former WMATA management employee blamed a lack of adequate funding for Metro’s safety issues, saying often choices had to be made to between repairs and preventative maintenance given there was often not enough funds for both.
“If you emphasize nothing else there are a tremendous number of dedicated, hardworking people at Metro and the news media talks about the one percent-ers and that’s where I get emotional,” the former WMATA employee said.
Most local elected leaders, WMATA board members, former Metro employees and other stakeholders tend to agree that Metro needs more funding.
Unlike many mass transit systems throughout the country, Metro does not have a dedicated funding source, or a special tax that goes directly for the system, instead it relies on the fares it charges and funding from the jurisdictions within Maryland, D.C. and Virginia.
Fares have become a problem for the system as ridership has decline, with a drop in 15 million riders from 2015 to 2016 a 15 percent decline, causing a major funding issue for Metro.
Metro funding tends not to be a top priority in Annapolis. While legislators from Montgomery and Prince George’s counties press for more funding from the state government, the issue is not a priority of the rest of the General Assembly.
Del. David Fraser-Hidalgo (D-15) said often his fellow delegates from outside Montgomery and Prince George’s counties do not consider Metro as a top priority for the state.
While politicians debate within state capitals for more funding for Metro, the fact that the system is a tri-state transit system complicates things. While larger transit systems exist in New York or Chicago, the Washington D.C. transit system crosses three into two different states and into the District of Colombia, which, for all intents and purposes for mass transit, acts as it own state.
“You got three jurisdictions that disagree with each other on labor issues, that disagree with each other on taxation…those are two big issues not to have agreement on,” said Del. Kumar Barve (D-17).
Barve said the solution for Metro’s is for the federal government to step up more and kick in more for funding. Asking the federal government for more help with Metro has of late become a bi-partisan solution.
Gov. Larry Hogan said he spoke multiple times with U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao about increasing the federal government funding for Metro. At a ground breaking for the light rail commuter train, the Purple Line Aug. 28, where he met with Chao, Hogan echoed the need for the federal government to spend more on Metro.
“In our very first meeting I talked about more federal funding for Metro, that’s probably one of the things we’ll be talking about today as well,” Hogan said.
President Donald J. Trump finally ended a seven-year effort to get Metro a new oversight body when he signed a bill into law giving consent to D.C. Maryland and Virginia to replace the now defunct Tri State Oversight Committee – though it is unclear if it will make a difference.
The push began during the last presidential administration, spanning from a federal takeover of Metro safety oversight and a threat from two different U.S. secretaries of Transportation (Foxx and Chao) to pull funding, to multi-year efforts from the Maryland, Virginia and D.C. legislative bodies to approve legislation for a new safety oversight body to oversee Metro.
Barve, who chairs Environment and Transportation Committee in the Maryland House of Delegates, said a new oversight body will not be any different than the last one.
“You can't make trains safer by having another committee, you make the trains safer by hiring more people to make the trains safer,” Barve said.
In 2015, the Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx gave Maryland, D.C. and Virginia a deadline: each of the jurisdictions must pass a law approving the establishment of a new tri-state oversight body by February 2017.
By February this year, a new presidential administration had come into office and brought with it a new Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, who followed Foxx’s example and withheld $5 million in funding from the jurisdictions which missed the deadline to establish the safety oversight agency.
While all three jurisdictions passed a version of the bill approving the Metro Safety Commission by this summer, Barve said Maryland was held up because it was late in getting guidelines from the federal government on its legislation.
Larry Mann, an attorney who helped craft the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970, and who represented family members of victims in the deadly 2009 Fort Totten Metro Crash, said the Metro Safety Commission will not have any more authority to enforce safety standards than the now-defunct TOC.
“The statute does not give them prescriptive right to issue regulations, it allows them to set safety policies, but that is not the same in my view as being able to mandate and enforce prescriptive type regulations,” Mann said.
Though the Metro Safety Commission, which can finally assemble is not the region’s first oversight body to oversee Metro safety.
In 1997, D.C., Maryland and Virginia joined together to create the Tri-State Oversight Committee, a local body responsible for Metro’s safety oversight.
The body was created after the Department of Transportation regulation passed, mandating rail transit systems not regulated by the Federal Railroad Administration to create a state safety oversight body. Both Maryland and Virginia appointed two members, while D.C. appointed one member to the committee.
Just 13 years later, the three jurisdictions decided to dissolve TOC after the numerous Metro accidents, deaths and safety violations that happened under TOC’s watch.
As the Gov. Martin O’Malley, Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell and D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty came to an understanding to dissolve TOC, the FTA was issuing a strong rebuke of both the oversight body and WMATA to the House of Representatives Oversight and Reform Committee.
In 2010, the FTA audited both TOC and WMATA and published a report detailed in then-FTA administrator Peter M. Rogoff’s testimony to Congress where he said TOC and WMATA had failed to properly provide adequate safety oversight.
“The audit concludes that these two agencies face serious challenges that could compromise the safety of WMATA’s riders, if left unaddressed,” Rogoff, said of TOC and WMATA during his testimony the House Oversight Committee in 2010. “While each of these agencies has effected recent improvements, a great deal more needs to be done to ensure that those advances become a permanent feature within the safety culture.”
It was clear to the jurisdictions in charge of Metro something had to change and a new oversight body was needed. The same day Rogoff testified to congress about TOC’s inability to properly oversee Metro safety the Gov. Martin O’Malley, Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell and D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty came to an understanding and decided together to dissolve TOC and create a new body.
For five years TOC remained the oversight body for Metro. It continued as it did before, it issued reports and came up with a list of safety deficiencies Metro needed to fix on its rail system and still had little authority to enforce and safety regulations.
Foxx said in his Oct.9, 2015, letter to the National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Chris Hart the 2015 smoke incident near L’Enfant Plaza Station was a turning point for the federal government. The Department of Transportation would no longer wait for the jurisdictions to pass laws creating a new oversight body with teeth and instead in an unprecedented move took over safety oversight for D.C.’s mass-transit system.
Using the list that was in part crafted by TOC, FTA handed a list of the 268 safety deficiencies Metro needed to correct, through Corrective Action Plans, and had its own officials help inspect Metrorail system while Foxx, secretary of transportation, gave a deadline to the jurisdictions to set up a new oversight body and threatened to shut down the transit system if problems were not resolved.
Mann said the new Metro Safety Commission will not have much more authority than its predecessor and will not require its members to have a background in safety. In addition any one of the three jurisdictions, D.C., Maryland or Virginia, can disband the Metro Safety Commission by themselves.
“I just don't think it's going to be effective,” Mann said.
October 9, 2015 is the day U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said he had finally seen enough from Washington’s mass transit system.
After years of workplace deaths, safety problems and inadequate oversight the Federal Transit Administration's patience finally ran out after an elderly woman died after L’Enfant Plaza Station filled with toxic smoke in January 2015.
The incident was the last straw for the Foxx, who made an unprecedented decision to take federal control of safety oversight over the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. Last April’s system wide shutdown of Metro revealed not only a mass transit system plagued by a history of safety, oversight and management problems.
“FTA has the capability to assert this authority and, at my direction, will do so immediately,” Foxx said in an October 2015 letter.