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Testimony Before the Subcommittee on Transportation and Public Assets and Subcommittee on Government Operations Committee on Oversight and Government Reform United States House of Representatives Examining the Safety and Service of D.C. Metro
Christopher A. Hart
Washington, DC
4/13/2016

​Good afternoon Chairman Mica, Chairman Meadows, Ranking Member Duckworth, Ranking Member Connolly, and the Members of the Subcommittees. Thank you for inviting the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to testify before you today.

The NTSB is an independent federal agency charged by Congress with investigating every civil aviation accident and significant incidents in the United States and significant accidents and incidents in other modes of transportation—rail, highway, marine and pipeline. The NTSB determines the probable cause of accidents and other transportation events and issues safety recommendations aimed at preventing future accidents. In addition, the NTSB carries out special studies concerning transportation safety and coordinates the resources of the federal government and other organizations assisting victims and their family members impacted by major transportation disasters.

Since its inception, the NTSB has investigated more than 400 railroad accidents, of which 62 were rapid transit accidents. On call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, NTSB investigators travel throughout the country and internationally to investigate significant accidents and develop factual records and safety recommendations with one aim—to ensure that such accidents never happen again.

Investigations of Prior WMATA Metrorail Accidents and Incidents

Since 1982, the NTSB has investigated 13 accidents involving the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). Most recently, the NTSB investigated the January 12, 2015, accident in which WMATA train 302 stopped after encountering heavy smoke while traveling southbound in a tunnel between the L’Enfant Plaza Station and the Potomac River Bridge in Washington, DC. About 380 passengers were aboard the six-car passenger train at the time of the accident. Some passengers self-evacuated from train 302, while emergency responders assisted others. The smoke originated from an electrical arcing event near the third rail about 1,900 feet south of the L’Enfant Plaza Station. Smoke filled the L’Enfant Plaza Station, which was evacuated. The train was stopped at 3:15 p.m. and all passengers were evacuated to safety by 4:27 p.m. As a result of the accident, 91 people were injured—including passengers, emergency responders, and WMATA employees—and one passenger died.

During the L’Enfant Plaza Station accident investigation, NTSB investigators found that some electrical connections associated with the power to the third rail were improperly constructed and installed without “sealing sleeves.” The absence of sealing sleeves can allow moisture and contaminants to enter the components and come into contact with high-voltage conductors. Such conditions create the potential for electrical short-circuiting, which result in fire and smoke events in the WMATA Metrorail system. On February 11, 2015, less than a month after the L’Enfant Plaza Station accident, the NTSB examined electrical components from a smoke event in the tunnel near the Court House Station in Arlington, Virginia, where NTSB investigators found that those cable connectors were also missing sealing sleeves.

Most recently, on March 14, 2016, WMATA informed the NTSB of an arcing event early that morning at the McPherson Square Station in downtown Washington, D.C. The NTSB was invited to view some of the damaged electrical components. NTSB staff observed surveillance video of the McPherson Square Station platform, photographs of the incident location, and components that had been removed from the incident location. We observed that the damage to the third rail electrical components was similar to that of the L’Enfant Plaza Station accident. One cable connector assembly and portions of the cables, as well as a portion of the third rail cover board, had been vaporized. Surveillance video showing smoke filling the McPherson Square Station was also similar to what occurred on the L’Enfant Plaza Station platform. However, it is not clear what caused the arcing event at the McPherson Square Station.

To gather additional factual information in support of the NTSB’s L’Enfant Plaza Station accident investigation, we convened a two-day investigative hearing in June 2015. The hearing examined four broad issue areas: the state of WMATA’s infrastructure, emergency response efforts, WMATA’s organizational culture, and the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) and the Tri-state Oversight Committee’s (TOC) efforts to address public transportation safety. Witnesses from various parties involved provided important first-hand insight on what happened and addressed larger questions raised by the accident. Additionally, the NTSB brought in representatives from Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Services, Metro-North Railroad, and the United Kingdom’s Office of Rail Regulation to share their relevant experience in preventing and responding to accidents. The final report for the L’Enfant Plaza Station accident will be considered at the NTSB’s May 3, 2016, Board Meeting.

In the 35 years prior to the L’Enfant Plaza Station accident, the NTSB investigated 12 accidents on the WMATA’s Metrorail system; more than half of those occurred between 2006-2014. In addition, since 1970, the NTSB has issued 101 safety recommendations to WMATA.

The deadliest accident occurred on June 22, 2009, on aboveground track on the Metrorail Red Line near the Fort Totten Station in Washington, D.C. The lead car of train 112 struck the rear car of train 214, causing the rear car of train 214 to telescope into the lead car of train 112. This resulted in a loss of occupant survival space in the lead car of about 63 feet (about 84 percent of its total length). Nine people aboard train 112, including the train operator, were killed. Emergency response agencies reported transporting 52 people to local hospitals.[1] The NTSB determined that the ineffective safety oversight by the WMATA Board of Directors, the TOC’s ineffective oversight and lack of safety oversight authority, and the FTA’s lack of statutory authority to provide federal safety oversight were contributing factors in the accident. As a result of this investigation, the NTSB issued 16 safety recommendations to the WMATA.[2]

Other significant WMATA Metrorail accidents investigated by the NTSB include the following:

  • November 29, 2009: Rear-end collision of two Metrorail trains at the West Falls Church, VA, rail yard, resulting in injuries to three Metrorail employees and an estimated $9 million in damage to train equipment.[3]
  • January 7, 2007: Derailment of a Metrorail train near the Mt. Vernon Square Station, Washington, DC, resulting in 23 passengers being transported to hospitals and an estimated $3.8 million in property damages.[4]
  • November 3, 2004: Collision of two Metrorail trains at the Woodley Park Zoo-Adams Morgan Station, Washington, DC, resulting in about 20 persons being transported to hospitals for treatment and an estimated $3.5 million in property damage.[5]
  • January 13, 1982: Derailment of a Metrorail train at Smithsonian Interlocking, Washington, DC, resulting in three fatalities, 25 injured people, and an estimated $1.3 million in property damage.[6]

While some progress has been made on the safety recommendations stemming from the Fort Totten and other investigations, the L’Enfant Plaza Station accident and the electrical arcing incidents at the Court House and McPherson Square Stations show that more needs to be done.

NTSB Urgent Recommendations After L’Enfant Plaza Accident

Soon after initiating the investigation into the L’Enfant Plaza Station accident, the NTSB identified concerns with the ventilation systems that required immediate action. On February 11, 2015, we made three urgent safety recommendations to the WMATA.[7] The NTSB makes urgent recommendations to address circumstances that create an imminent danger to the public. These urgent recommendations called on the WMATA to: (1) assess the subway tunnel ventilation system, verifying that it is in good repair; (2) develop and implement detailed written ventilation procedures for its operation control center; and (3) base these procedures on the most effective strategy for fan direction and activation to limit passengers’ exposure to smoke. In addition, we urged the WMATA to incorporate these procedures into its ongoing training and exercise programs.

In response to the urgent safety recommendations, the WMATA has informed the NTSB that it has completed the following actions: conducted a field assessment of the Metrorail system’s 315 ventilation fans, verifying that 94 percent of the fans have no deficiencies, and have either repaired or scheduled for maintenance all remaining fans; procured the services of a technical services firm to update WMATA’s emergency standard operating procedures for fire and life safety processes in tunnels and underground stations; and created a plan to develop an employee training program to implement the updated procedures. Therefore, we have reclassified these urgent safety recommendations “Open—Acceptable Response.”

In a companion urgent safety recommendation issued on February 11, 2015, we also urged the FTA to audit all properties with underground rail operations to assess their ventilation systems.[8] In response to this recommendation, the FTA directed all state safety oversight agencies (SSOA) with jurisdiction over the 25 rail transit agencies with subway tunnels to conduct audits to assess and inspect tunnel ventilation systems and related issues. We have also reclassified this urgent safety recommendation “Open—Acceptable Response.”

The NTSB also issued a safety recommendation to the WMATA on June 8, 2015, addressing problems with the electrical connections in the Metrorail system.[9] The NTSB asked the WMATA to inspect the cable connector assemblies and ensure that they are in accordance with WMATA’s specifications, which includes the sealing sleeves. We are closely monitoring the WMATA’s progress in implementing this recommendation, as well as all of the other safety recommendations issued to the WMATA that are classified “Open.”

Urgent Recommendations to DOT Concerning WMATA Oversight

The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 established the State Safety Oversight (SSO) program; this program went into effect in 1997. Under this program, states are responsible for the safety of the rail fixed guideway systems within their borders. Each state is required to establish an SSOA that sets requirements for rail transit safety and monitors the performance of rail transit agencies in accordance with those requirements.

Since the establishment of the SSO program, the NTSB has investigated serious accidents involving the WMATA and has identified inadequate oversight and regulation as a persistent problem. In general, the NTSB investigations of the WMATA have found that, although safety program plans were in place, they were not effectively implemented and overseen. It should be noted that the WMATA is the only transit property in the United States that involves three jurisdictions. Most transit properties involve one jurisdiction and a few involve two, but the WMATA is the only one with three. After the NTSB investigated the 2009 accident near the Fort Totten Station, we called for increased regulatory oversight of rail transit properties and recommended that the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) seek legislative authority to provide safety oversight.

On July 17, 2012, President Obama signed into law the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21).[10] MAP-21 made a number of fundamental changes to the statutes that authorize the federal transit programs. Under the law, the FTA must certify oversight agencies, and, once certified, an SSOA can receive federal grant funds. To gain certification, an SSOA must show the FTA that it is financially independent of the rail transit system it oversees, has adequate authority to oversee those systems, and has adequate resources to hire appropriate staff.

To comply with the MAP-21 SSO program requirement, the FTA published the SSO Program final rule, which will take effect on April 15, 2016.[11] Among other things, the SSO rule gives the FTA the authority to review and approve each state’s SSO program and take enforcement actions against those states with nonexistent or noncompliant safety oversight programs. In addition, it requires each state to establish an SSO program and ensure that the SSOA is financially and legally independent from any rail transit agency it oversees, and meets a number of requirements intended to assure that its oversight is effective. Each state with federally funded rail transit properties must have an SSO program approved by the FTA administrator by April 15, 2019.

In 2013, the TOC received notification from the FTA that it did not meet MAP-21 certification requirements. The FTA’s concerns with the TOC focused on the TOC’s effectiveness as a legal organizational model for overseeing the WMATA. In response, Governor McAuliffe (Virginia), then Governor O’Malley (Maryland), and then Mayor Grey (District of Columbia) wrote to the Secretary of Transportation to authorize what they described as an actionable step to establish an independent SSOA that would conform to MAP-21. In doing so, they proposed the Metro Safety Commission (MSC), an independent organization that would assume the responsibilities of the TOC. The letter offered no detail, but it referenced a White Paper, Optimizing State Safety Oversight of the WMATA Metrorail System, prepared by the three jurisdictions. The White Paper described the three jurisdictions’ collective ideal SSO program for the oversight of the WMATA and proposed actions necessary to achieve that ideal. However, it included no details about establishing legal authority in a way that overcomes the multijurisdictional problems faced by the current TOC. Finally, the authors admitted other challenges, such as resources; legislation at the local, state, and federal levels; and budgetary constraints of all three jurisdictions that may further limit progress in achieving an effective safety oversight program.

According to the TOC chairman’s testimony at the NTSB investigative hearing on the L’Enfant Plaza Station accident, the earliest the MSC would come into existence is 2019. On March 1, 2016, Governor Hogan (Maryland), Governor McAuliffe (Virginia), and Mayor Bowser (District of Columbia) signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) for cooperation in the establishment of the MSC. The parties agreed to commit staff, share information, procure professional services, and develop strategies with the goal of introducing enabling legislation for the MSC in 2016 to the Council of the District of Columbia and in 2017 to the Maryland and Virginia general assemblies. However, the NTSB remains concerned that Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia will encounter legislative impediments that will delay the establishment of the MSC or other SSOA.

Based on 45 years of inadequate safety oversight of the WMATA Metrorail system, the NTSB issued urgent safety recommendations to the Secretary of Transportation on September 30, 2015, recommending that the DOT seek an amendment to 45 USC § 1104(3) to list the WMATA as a commuter authority, thus authorizing the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to exercise regulatory oversight of the WMATA and to direct the FRA administrator to develop and implement a plan to transition the oversight of the WMATA to the FRA within six months (attached).[12] The NTSB recommended the change in oversight because the FRA has robust regulatory and enforcement powers, allowing it to more effectively address hazards and improve the overall safety of the WMATA’s rail operations. The Secretary of Transportation responded to the NTSB’s urgent safety recommendations on October 9, 2015, acknowledging that the TOC lacked sufficient resources, technical capacity, and enforcement authority to provide the level of oversight needed to ensure safety at the WMATA. However, the Secretary disagreed with the NTSB recommendation to transfer safety oversight of the WMATA rail system to the FRA, citing the enhanced authority of the SSOAs and the authority in MAP-21 for the FTA to assume the safety oversight in the absence of an effective SSOA. The Secretary stated in his letter that the FTA would begin increased oversight and would “directly enforce and investigate the safety oversight of WMATA.” He also said that the expanded authority would include orders and directives pursuant to Title 49 USC § 5329(f) and (g), require the WMATA to spend federal funds to address safety deficiencies, and amend the WMATA’s corrective action plan to include previous TOC notices of deficiencies, the implementation of which would be overseen directly by the FTA with the TOC’s assistance. The FTA oversight of the WMATA was to include unannounced facility inspections. The Secretary said the FTA would maintain a higher level of oversight “until a compliant and capable SSOA is established to replace the TOC.”

The NTSB remains concerned that, while the Secretary of Transportation tasked the FTA with assuming the authority of the SSOA, the FTA has very limited ability to oversee the WMATA effectively. The FTA has no prior experience in direct safety oversight or as an SSOA, has limited staff to carry out the function, and does not have the authority to levy civil or individual penalties in response to safety deficiencies. The NTSB understands that legislation enabling the creation of a fully functional SSOA for the WMATA may be a lengthy process, and the FTA’s temporary SSOA authority will likely exist longer than anticipated. Thus, on February 19, 2016, the NTSB reclassified the urgent safety recommendations “Open—Unacceptable Response.”

The NTSB is not alone in its concern about the ability of the FTA to conduct oversight activities effectively. On December 2, 2015, the DOT Office of the Inspector General announced its initiation of an audit of the FTA’s safety oversight program and assumption of the WMATA rail safety oversight, stating in a memorandum to the acting administrator of the FTA that, “FTA may face significant challenges in carrying out these new responsibilities.”

Although the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act,[13] enacted in 2015, granted additional authority to the FTA, including the authority to exercise direct safety oversight of rail transit agencies when necessary to correct safety deficiencies and withhold not more than 25 percent of the Section 5307 financial assistance funds from recipients for noncompliance with safety regulations, we do not believe that these additional authorities address the concerns that we highlighted in the urgent safety recommendations. There are many uncertainties associated with the proposed FTA approach to WMATA oversight. DOT implementation of our urgent safety recommendations that the WMATA be ruled a commuter authority and that the FRA assume oversight responsibility for WMATA rail transit would eliminate these uncertainties because the FRA is an experienced regulatory safety oversight agency. The NTSB believes that the FRA is best positioned to oversee the WMATA Metrorail, but the DOT, nevertheless, is moving forward in implementing FTA oversight. The NTSB will monitor the efficacy of this decision and continue to champion consistently strong oversight for all rail transit agencies.

Conclusion

The NTSB’s annual Most Wanted List highlights safety-critical actions that the DOT, other federal entities, states, and organizations need to take to help prevent accidents and save lives. In January, the NTSB released its Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements for 2016. The NTSB’s investigation of the L’Enfant Plaza accident illustrated that rail transit accidents continue to cause injuries and deaths, and yet oversight of rail transit is unreliable in some cases, increasing safety risks. Therefore, this year’s Most Wanted List includes “Improve Rail Transit Safety Oversight.”[14]

The L’Enfant Plaza Station accident and subsequent electrical arcing incidents at the Court House and McPherson Square stations demonstrate that more needs to be done to ensure the safety of the Metrorail system. Most importantly, an effective, independent oversight system must be created to ensure that the highest possible level of safety is afforded to the American public

Thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today. I look forward to responding to your questions.


1. National Transportation Safety Board Collision of Two Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Metrorail Trains Near Fort Totten Station, Washington, D.C. on June 22, 2009, RAR-10-02 (Washington, DC: National Transportation Safety Board, 2010).

2. R-10-007 through -022, August 10, 2007.

3. National Transportation Safety Board, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Rear-end Collision, RAB-12/04 (Washington, DC: National Transportation Safety Board, 2012).

4. National Transportation Safety Board, Derailment of Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Train near the Mt. Vernon Square Station, Washington, D.C. on January 7, 2007, RAR-07-03 (Washington, DC: National Transportation Board, 2007).

5. National Transportation Safety Board, Collision Between Two Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Trains at the Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan Station in Washington, D.C. on November 3, 2004, RAR- 06-01 (Washington, DC: National Transportation Safety Board, 2006).

6. National Transportation Safety Board, Derailment of Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Train No. 410 at Smithsonian Interlocking on January 13, 1982, RAR-82-6 (Washington, DC: National Transportation Safety Board, 1982).

7. R-15-008 through -010, February 11, 2015.

8. R-15-007.

9. R-15-025.

10. Pub. L. 112-141.

11. 81 FR 14229: (March 16, 2016)

12. R-15-031 and -032.

13. Pub. L. 114-94.

14. National Transportation Safety Board, 2016 Most Wanted List: Improve Rail Transit Oversight