- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Lax safety oversight by Metro and federal officials allowed a prolonged short circuit to cause the January 2015 smoke incident that killed one passenger and injured 86 others at the L’Enfant Plaza subway station, a National Transportation Safety Board report said Tuesday.

Citing 43 findings that led to the fatal accident, the long-awaited NTSB report said the tragedy could have prevented if Metro had followed its own safety management guidance and the Federal Transit Administration and regional overseers had properly monitored the transit system.

“The ineffective practices persisted as a result of the failure of [Metro] senior management to proactively assess and mitigate foreseeable safety risks and the inadequate safety oversight by the Tri-State Oversight Committee and the Federal Transit Administration,” states the report, which was released Tuesday.

The NTSB placed the blame for the accident squarely on Metro and its overseers, but it also cited the D.C. Fire Department for its lack of rescue rail training.

“Contributing to the accident were [Metro’s] failure to follow established procedures and the District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department’s being unprepared to respond to a mass casualty event on the [Metro] underground system,” the report said.

The federal safety board issued recommendations to Metro, the Federal Transit Administration and D.C. Fire, as well as Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office, the Office of Unified Communications and the regional Council of Governments.

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In the NTSB meeting Tuesday, board members questioned whether the Federal Transit Administration should be Metro’s federal auditor, saying the oversight authority might be better suited for the Federal Railroad Administration.

Congress would have to approve the move to place the FRA, which handles the investigations of commercial freight and passenger rail accidents, in charge of Metro.

The Federal Transit Administration cannot levy fines against Metro for not following its guidelines: Its only recourse is to penalize the transit system by withholding federal funds. The FRA, on the other hand, would be able to fine Metro for violations.

According to the NTSB report, a breakdown in maintenance inspections and safety oversight allowed problems to fester and led to the series of failures that resulted in the Jan. 12, 2015, accident on Metro’s Yellow Line that killed Carol Glover, 61. A subway train stopped in a tunnel near L’Enfant Plaza after encountering heavy smoke; another train stopped near the station and riders waiting on the platform were engulfed by the smoke.

Under the lax oversight and maintenance practices, inspectors overlooked missing protective sleeves on electrical connections and standing water in the tunnel. The combination of the two caused the electrical malfunction that resulted in smoke filling the train and the platform at L’Enfant Plaza.

At a D.C. Council breakfast at the same time the NTSB was meeting to discuss the report, Metro Board Chair Jack Evans renewed his call to shutdown the large parts of the Metro system for repairs.

“We need huge amounts of track time and it will be really inconvenient for everyone,” said Mr. Evans, a Democrat who represents Ward 2 on the D.C. Council. “Everything is a wreck. You have to do a rebuild of the whole system.”

Mr. Evans noted that the Red Line has seen four fires caused by four different problems in the last 10 days. But he also was resigned that a complete overhaul is probably out of the question, as Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld has expressed unwillingness to shut down large portions of the system, saying the repairs could be made with less severe disruptions.

“We need to close it down and rebuild it, but we aren’t going to,” Mr. Evans said.

In March, Metro officials shut down the entire subway system for 29 hours to conduct safety inspections of the electrical power cables.

NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said at Tuesday’s meeting that the bottom line is that Metro’s safety oversight has big problems.

“When the NTSB finds itself issuing a continuous stream of accident reports to address the basic safety management of a single transit rail system, something is fundamentally flawed. Here, that something is safety oversight,” Mr. Hart said.

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