Washington's Metro Fire Called Symptom of Aging Transit

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A firefighter assists a victim after passengers on the Metro service were injured when smoke filled the L'Enfant Plaza station during the evening rush hour on Jan. 12, 2015, in Washington.

Photographer: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
  • NTSB report on 2015 fatality blames maintenance, management
  • U.S. estimates $88 billion needed by nation's transit systems

The fire that killed one person and injured 91 last year on the Washington subway system was caused by faulty management and maintenance, a federal safety board concluded in a scathing report that draws attention to the nation’s neglected transportation infrastructure.

The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the January, 2015 death on poor oversight of Metrorail, the country’s second-biggest subway by ridership, as well as design flaws that failed to vent smoke -- problems that had been identified in earlier reports on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Administration. The board adopted dozens of recommendations to improve the Metro system Tuesday.

“WMATA’s safety culture and safety oversight have not changed adequately,” NTSB chairman Christopher Hart said at a meeting on the incident. “As a result, the specific hazards that we will consider today were allowed to develop and persist.”

The Federal Transit Administration estimates that 29 percent of all U.S. transit system assets are in marginal or poor condition, implying they’re at the end of their useful life -- or have already exceeded it. It would take $88 billion to bring them all into state of good repair, the agency estimates.

National Dilemma

The troubles at WMATA aren’t unique, Robert Puentes, president and chief executive officer of the Eno Center for Transportation, a Washington-based transportation policy think tank, said in an interview before the hearing. Boston and San Francisco are having similar discussions about rebuilding their rail systems.

“A lot of the infrastructure we’ve built has reached the end of its useful life,” Puentes said. “We do a good job in this country of building new stuff. Where we fall short is keeping up-to-date what we have right now.”

The lack of good repair is a key to understanding the Jan. 12, 2015 incident on the Washington Metrorail’s Yellow Line. A train stopped in a tunnel after encountering heavy smoke near the L’Enfant Plaza station. About 400 passengers were on board the six-car train. A few evacuated on their own.

Malfunctioning Fans

Smoke accumulated on the tracks and in the station from a faulty electrical boot near the third rail, the high-voltage line that powers Metro trains. Fans that were supposed to carry smoke out of the system didn’t function as intended, and smoke filled the tunnel and the nearby station.

On the stopped train, the operator needed permission from a central dispatcher to turn off the train ventilation system. The delay meant the cars loaded with passengers filled with smoke. One died, and more than 90 others were treated at local hospitals.

Water leaks were another well-known problem area that Metro left unaddressed, the safety board said. Leaks in Metro’s underground tunnels have been occurring for years, and yet WMATA terminated a program for detecting leaks in 2012. Leaks in the area of the 2015 fire were flagged in 2010 and 2014, the NTSB said. A seven-month-old work order to fix the leak was open at the time of the fire, it said.

Governing Structure

Metro’s unique governing system, requiring the cooperation of two states and a federal territory has made it harder to implement changes needed to improve safety, the NTSB said. Its oversight board, the Tri-State Oversight Committee, has no offices, investigative staff or enforcement authority, the safety board said. Overall, the agency and its oversight board have been ineffective, the safety board said.

As part of its formal determination of the cause of the accident and death, the safety board found Metro’s inspection and maintenance practices were ineffective, compounded by the failure of the agency’s senior management to “assess and mitigate foreseeable safety risks.” If the agency had been effectively following their existing policies, the fire might have never happened, the NTSB said.

Metro’s recently appointed chief executive officer, Paul Wiedefeld, told reporters the agency would carefully review the NTSB’s findings, and he would be continuing to try to shake up the agency to make safety a higher priority.

“We have to change the culture,” Wiedefeld said. “We have to get the infrastructure correct. We have to get the policies right. We have to get the people right. That’s what we’ve been trying to do since Day One.”

Federal Oversight

Last year, the NTSB recommended Washington’s Metro system be placed under the Federal Railroad Administration for oversight. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx declined to follow that recommendation but did authorize another agency, the Federal Transit Administration, to audit Metro.

FTA oversight won’t be sufficient, NTSB board members said Tuesday. The transit administration doesn’t have the experience necessary to oversee Metro, set safety standards, or issue fines when needed. The railroad administration does have the experience and enforcement authority needed to be effective, they said.

Without a culture overhaul at WMATA, a better oversight board and new, effective federal enforcement to back up the changes, it’s not likely safety will improve at the beleaguered rail system, NTSB board members said. The safety board noted it has investigated 13 Metrorail accidents and nine since 2004, and some of the same issues have been flagged in multiple crashes.

‘Fundamentally Flawed’

“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,” Hart said. “That something is safety oversight.”

On the national level, it’s highly unlikely all of that funding will come from the federal government, Puentes said. Congress signaled it will maintain current federal investments in the latest comprehensive transportation bill, known as the FAST Act. But it didn’t fully fund its road map, and states and localities shouldn’t expect anything more.

The cities that are currently expanding transit, like Los Angeles, Denver, Phoenix and Dallas are finding creative ways to finance the programs without extra federal help, Puentes said.

“There’s no cavalry,” Puentes said. “The federal government is not going away, but the way we used to think of it, as raining money down on the states and the localities, is not going to return any time soon.”

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