With the acrimony between the political parties and the two chambers in Congress, crucial matters such as Metrorail safety are getting short shrift.
Anybody who was around the Washington, D.C., area on June 22, 2009, recalls the horrible drama that unfolded when a train on Metro’s Red Line struck another, stationary train during the afternoon rush hour.
Survivors described the crash as akin to hitting a concrete wall, and said panic ensued among the passengers when the car doors did not open immediately. The accident took nine lives and left more than 50 others injured, making it the deadliest crash in Metro history.
In a report issued more than a year after the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded a faulty track circuit, part of the automatic train control system, was the cause.
Also in the wake of the accident, there was talk about the need for federal safety standards to govern subways and other mass transit. Fast forward to 2012, and there still are no federal safety standards. But that doesn’t mean some lawmakers have given.
Both Maryland senators, Barbara A. Mikulski and Benjamin L. Cardin, have been outspoken in calling for the federal safety standards. The Senate, in fact, approved a comprehensive transportation bill in March that paves the way for establishing federal standards.
Mikulski, who has been dogged in pushing for federal safety standards, said in a recent speech on the Senate floor, “Metro leadership initially just was dragging its axles, but I wouldn’t take no for an answer. We shook up the management; we shook up the board, now I just want to shake up Congress.”
What she and other advocates want — and for a recalcitrant House of Representatives to go along with — is for the secretary of the Department of Transportation to create a safety plan based, in part, on NTSB recommendations. Those recommendations include establishing crashworthiness standards for rail cars; requiring Metro trains install data recorders, similar to black boxes on jetliners; drafting improved evacuation and rescue procedures for rail transit cars; and setting limits on how many hours Metro conductors can work to ensure they get enough sleep between shifts.
A national safety plan also would establish a training program for federal and state employees who are responsible for safety oversight. It also would require public transportation agencies to establish their own comprehensive safety plans. Finally, it would give funding to federally approved state safety oversight agencies.
At this point, the Republican-controlled House has its own comprehensive transportation legislation that does not give DOT authority to establish or enforce national safety standards. Conferees from the two chambers are negotiating.
Equally troubling is a recent proposal from the White House to cut a chunk of federal funding for Metro-related safety improvements in our region. In recent years, the federal government has provided Metro $150 million to pay for annual safety upgrades along its 103-mile rail system. As part of that arrangement, D.C., Maryland and Virginia kick in $50 million apiece in matching funds —money that’s likely saved lives and countless delays for Metro riders.
Cutting a single dollar — let alone the $15 million President Obama’s budget proposes —would be short-sighted.
To their credit, a group of area lawmakers that includes Virginia’s U.S. Reps. Jim Moran (D-Dist. 8), Gerry Connolly (D-Dist. 11) and Frank Wolf (R-Dist. 10) signed off on a letter that urged the White House not to touch those funds. The crux of their argument centers on the fact that more than 40 percent of Metro’s rush hour riders are federal employees and half of Metro’s 86 stations sit in federal property.
Given those figures, and the fact that 23 miles of new track is being laid in Northern Virginia, Moran, Connolly and Wolf can make a strong case to bump the federal government’s contribution by 10 percent rather than cutting it.
It remains to be seen what comes of the bills and proposals in these contentious times. What’s clear, though, is that Metro riders — among the more than 7 million people nationwide who use rail transportation weekdays — need assurance that their safety is being addressed to its fullest.