NTSB Recommends Federal Oversight of Metrorail

It will be up to congressional leaders to take action.

The federal government may step in and assume oversight of Metrorail, taking an unprecedented step. 

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued urgent safety recommendations to the U.S. Department of Transportation on Wednesday, urging officials to place Metrorail under the watch of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) -- something not done with other subway systems in the U.S.

Metro has faced criticism and rider backlash over the past several years regarding at-times unreliable service, breakdowns and smoke in tunnels.

In January, a woman died and more than 80 were sickened after a Metro train became stranded in a smoky tunnel outside the L'Enfant Plaza station. Metro said it attempted to get the stuck train back to a platform, but couldn't due to electrical malfunctions. In the wake of the incident, congressional leaders said it should be a wake-up call for Metrorail.

The current oversight group, Tri-State Oversight Committee, would be heavily criticized, sources said in advance of the announcement.

If Metro were placed under FRA oversight, it would mean a different set of inspectors and standards than apply to Metrorail now. This would be a first-of-its-kind move, because subway systems don't usually fall under FRA oversight. However, commuter railroads such as Virginia Railway Express do.

However, the NTSB's move is just a recommendation; it will be up to congressional leaders to take action by putting together a bill.

"The ongoing NTSB investigation into the Jan. 12 tragedy at L'Enfant Plaza has laid bare the stunning absence of a culture of safety and competence within Metro," Rep. Gerald E. Connolly of Virginia said in a statement. "The fortunes of the federal government and Metro are inherently linked. The federal government must play a more active role in providing the necessary oversight and resources to address these challenges."

Connolly said the "constant barrage and increasing severity of service disruptions" on Metro are eroding confidence. The problems also underscore the need for Metro to hire a new general manager "with operational experience," he said.

Metro has been without a permanent general manager since Richard Sarles retired in January, the same week as the L'Enfant Plaza smoke incident. 

Metro has not yet commented on the NTSB findings.

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