Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content
Safety Recommendation Details

Safety Recommendation R-15-032
Details
Synopsis: On Monday, January 12, 2015, about 3:15 p.m. eastern standard time, WMATA Metrorail Yellow Line train 302 stopped after encountering an accumulation of heavy smoke while traveling southbound in a tunnel between the L’Enfant Plaza station and the Potomac River bridge in the District of Columbia. About 400 passengers were on board the six-car passenger train at the time of the accident. Some passengers self-evacuated from the train, while others were assisted by emergency responders. The smoke originated from an arcing event near the third rail about 2,000feet south of the L’Enfant Plaza station. Smoke filled the L’Enfant Plaza station causing an evacuation of the station. District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Management Services reported that 86 people were treated and transported from the scene; another 9 passengers self-transported to medical facilities. There was one passenger fatality.
Recommendation: TO THE UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION: After Title 45 United States Code Section 1104(3) is amended to include the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, direct the Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration to develop and implement a plan to transition the oversight of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s rail system to the Federal Railroad Administration within 6 months. (Urgent)
Original recommendation transmittal letter: PDF
Overall Status: Open - Unacceptable Response
Mode: Railroad
Location: Washington, DC, United States
Is Reiterated: No
Is Hazmat: No
Is NPRM: No
Accident #: DCA15FR004
Accident Reports: ​Preliminary Report: WMATA Smoke and Electrical Arcing Accident in Washington, DCWashington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority L’Enfant Plaza Station Electrical Arcing and Smoke Accident
Report #: RAR-16-01
Accident Date: 1/12/2015
Issue Date: 9/30/2015
Date Closed:
Addressee(s) and Addressee Status: DOT (Open - Unacceptable Response)
Keyword(s):

Safety Recommendation History
From: DOT
To: NTSB
Date: 5/3/2016
Response: -From Anthony R. Foxx, Secretary of Transportation: I am writing with regard to your letter on the National Transportation Safety Board's (NTSB) urgent recommendations R-15-31 and 32, which were issued as a result of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMA TA) Metrorail smoke and electrical arcing accident near L'Enfant Plaza on January 12, 20 15, and other events relating to the oversight of the WMATA Metrorail system. Our Department takes every recommendation of the NTSB seriously, and this matter has been considered with the same level of seriousness. Unlike many urgent recommendations, however, these recommendations relied not only on the Department to take action, but ultimately Congress. Specifically, the NTSB's urgent September 2015 recommendations would require Congress to reclassify WMA T A as a commuter rai l authority, after which the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) would have six months to commence regulatory oversight of WMATA Metrorail. Had we taken the NTSB recommendations whole cloth, it is entirely possible that we would still be awaiting such Congressional action and that the many oversight activities already undertaken by the FT A would not have happened in that vacuum. The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has existing legal authority, as provided by Congress in the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act of 2012 to undertake temporary and direct safety oversight of WMATA Metrorail. We did not have to wait, as it were. Moreover, subsequent to NTSB's urgent recommendations, Congress doubled down on FTA's role by further strengthening FTA's safety oversight authority in the Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act. The Jaw expressly authorized FTA to administer a State safety oversight program when it determines that a State is incapable of providing adequate safety oversight that is consistent with the prevention of substantial risk of death or personal injury (49 U.S.C. § 5329(e)(8)). In summary, FTA already has the authority to provide immediate safety oversight of WMA TA, and it has exercised that authority. The FRA does not have this authority, and in my judgment, we have taken the substance of the NTSB recommendations using the fastest, most effective method available to us. The FTA is already providing safety oversight, on a temporary basis, over WMA T A Metrorail until the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia create a new, fully functioning and capable State Safety Oversight Agency (SSOA) that complies with Federal law to replace their ineffective Tri-State Oversight Committee (TOC). Within 30 days from the date on which NTSB issued its urgent recommendations, FT A was taking action, using its extensive knowledge and expertise of the rail transit industry and its safety oversight and enforcement powers. In a short time, FTA has provided more thorough safety oversight over WMAT A than it has ever received before. The core 13-member FTA-WMATA Safety Oversight team comprises dedicated multidisciplinary subject matter experts from FTA and across the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). While seven members of the team are from FT A, there are three members from FRA, and one each from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the Office of the Secretary. All are professional, experienced, and capable individuals who possess technical expertise in accident and incident investigations, inspections, audits, and/or data analysis. Furthermore, the team has experience with track and vehicles found only in a rail transit operating environment. When intensive FTA-led safety inspections require additional staffing, FTA leverages expertise from other DOT agencies. For example, FTA successfully used other modal safety professionals to conduct a recent WMAT A track-integrity safety blitz, augmented by additional FRA track inspectors, which identified numerous track defects and critical concerns regarding fire/life safety and compliance with roadway worker protection procedures. This collaborative approach to addressing transportation safety concerns is the smart and effective "One DOT" model that we use to address issues at DOT. Since November 2015, FTA has conducted 143 inspections of critical components of WMATA's Metrorail system, including track, the Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC), automatic train control, traction power, communications, system maintenance, and vehicle maintenance. The FTA's inspections assess both the condition of critical infrastructure and how well WMATA follows its own procedures, rules, and safety standards. The FT A is also investigating accidents and incidents at WMA T A, including incidents involving third rail smoke and fire, red signal overruns, and the unintended uncoupling of a revenue service train, among others. In addition, FT A is working to complete the backlog of 125 open investigations inherited from TOC, some of which date back to 2013. To date, FTA has closed out a total of 42 investigations. The FTA had already focused on Metrorail safety in the year prior to NTSB's urgent recommendations, conducting a comprehensive Safety Management Inspection (SMI) of WMATA in the spring of2015, and issuing Safety Directive 15-1 in June 2015. The FTA is now managing and verifying WMATA's implementation of91 corrective actions arising from the SMI. The FT A has verified several of the corrective actions successfully implemented by WMAT A, including corrective actions related to long-outstanding issues from the 2009 Fort Totten collision, emergency response training, and the reduction of noise and distractions in ROCC. The WMATA has submitted additional corrective actions to FT A for closure review, and is actively working on dozens more. I believe this demonstrates FT A's effectiveness and ability to achieve the goal of NTSB's urgent recommendations, which is for DOT to take actions that will improve the safety of the WMA T A Metro rail system, recognizing that ultimately WMATA itself must undertake corrective actions necessary to address the problems all of us have identified. I remain confident that the FTA team has the right transit industry expertise, technical ability, and enforcement powers to improve Metrorail's safety- and again, FTA is leveraging resources throughout DOT, including from FRA. I have no uncertainties about the FT A-WMA TA safety oversight role. What FTA has accomplished in a short time should be a model for the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia as they create a new, fully functioning, and capable SSOA, and I have repeatedly urged those jurisdictions to take immediate action. Alongside direct safety oversight FTA is exercising another of its important authorities. In February 2016, WMATA submitted its Fiscal Year (FY) 20 17 Capital Investment Plan to FTA for review, for which FTA directed the use of$473 million in Federal funds. The FTA conducted a thorough review of proposed and pending WMA TA grant applications to ensure that Federal monies are directed to projects that support NTSB safety recommendations issued to WMA T A, corrective actions arising from the FTA-WMATA SMI, and key infrastructure improvements, such as third rail rehabilitation. The FTA denied WMATA's proposals to use $20 million in Federal funds on two non-safety related projects, and instead is requiring that those funds be held in reserve for use on safety-investment needs that will be identified during the course of FY 2017. If required, FTA also has statutory authority to withhold up to 25 percent of financial assistance received by WMA TA under the Section 5307 formula grant program. The FTA's exercise of direct safety oversight, coupled with the allocation of millions of dollars in Federal funds to address safety needs at WMATA (an authority vested in FTA, not FRA), is a powerful combination that will effectively support the WMA TA Metrorail safety improvements that NTSB seeks. For the reasons stated above, we believe the best antidote for WMA TA is to tackle its punch list and build a safety culture, and for the region to establish an effective SSOA. If we believed that taking further action would advance the cause, we would undertake it. However, given the actions already under way, we believe the recommendations should be closed.

From: NTSB
To: DOT
Date: 2/19/2016
Response: We note that you do not concur with these safety recommendations. In your letter, you disagreed that “the best, most urgent and most effective solution is to transfer safety oversight of WMATA’s rail transit system to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).” Instead, you stated that, in the absence of an effective state safety oversight agency (SSOA), the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act provides the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) with the capability to assume the authority of the SSOA. Your letter explains that, at your direction, the FTA will begin increased oversight and will “directly enforce and investigate the safety oversight of WMATA Metrorail ….” This expanded authority would include orders and directives pursuant to Title 49 United States Code Section 5329(f) and (g), would require WMATA to spend federal funds to address safety deficiencies, and would amend the corrective action plan to include previous notices of deficiencies, the implementation of which would be overseen directly by the FTA with the Tri State Oversight Committee’s (TOC) assistance. You stated that the FTA’s investigative efforts would also include unannounced facility inspections and the issuance of directives to address safety deficiencies. You also stated that the higher level of oversight would be maintained by the FTA “until a compliant and capable SSOA is established to replace the TOC.” We are concerned that you have tasked the FTA with assuming the authority of the SSOA because we believe that the FTA has very limited ability to effectively oversee WMATA. The FTA has no prior experience in direct safety oversight or as an SSOA, has limited staff to carry out this function, and does not have the authority to levy civil or individual penalties in response to safety deficiencies. Additionally, the FTA’s oversight of WMATA Metrorail is intended to be temporary, since it will be eliminated when a fully functional SSOA agency is established to replace the TOC. We recently learned that the legislation enabling the creation of a fully functional SSOA for WMATA is going to be delayed until at least 2017. Therefore, the FTA’s temporary SSOA authority will likely exist longer than you anticipate. We are not alone in our concern. On December 2, 2015, the Department of Transportation’s Office of the Inspector General (DOT-OIG) announced the initiation of an audit of the FTA’s safety oversight program and its assumption of WMATA Metrorail safety oversight. The DOT-OIG states in a memorandum to the Acting Administrator of the FTA that “…FTA may face significant challenges in carrying out these new responsibilities. Accordingly, we are initiating an audit of FTA’s enhanced oversight role.” We note that Congress passed the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, Pub. L. 114-94, on December 4, 2015. Part of this legislation grants new authorities to the FTA including the authority to exercise direct safety oversight of transit agencies when necessary to correct safety deficiencies and the authority to withhold not more than 25 percent of 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 our original recommendation letter and that are summarized above. We believe there are many uncertainties associated with the proposed FTA approach to WMATA oversight. Our recommendations for WMATA to be ruled a commuter authority and for the FRA to assume oversight responsibility for WMATA Metrorail eliminates these uncertainties because the FRA is an experienced and appropriately staffed regulatory safety oversight agency. Pending your reconsideration of our request, Safety Recommendations R 15 31 and 32 are classified OPEN—UNACCEPTABLE RESPONSE.

From: DOT
To: NTSB
Date: 10/9/2015
Response: -From Anthony R. Foxx, Secretary: This correspondence is in response to Urgent Safety Recommendation R-15-31 and 32 issued by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) on September 30, 2015. The NTSB issued these recommendations as part of its ongoing investigation of the smoke and arcing accident at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) Metrorail's L'Enfant Plaza station on January 12, 2015, as well as other events indicating inadequate safety oversight of WMATA. We take every recommendation of the NTSB seriously, including how quickly we can implement an urgent recommendation. In this case, we agree on the problem identified by NTSB, but believe there is a faster, more effective way to address it. NTSB is recommending that the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) seek a legislative change from Congress to transfer responsibility for oversight of WMATA's transit rail operations to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) from the Tri-State Oversight Committee (TOC), which is currently responsible for safety oversight of Metro rail, but lacks sufficient resources, technical capacity, and enforcement authority to provide the level of oversight that is needed. We agree that the TOC, as currently established, is ineffective. We disagree, however, that the best, most urgent and most effective solution is to transfer safety oversight of WMATA's rail transit system to the Federal Railroad Administration. Through the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) legislation, Congress provided the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) with greatly enhanced, independent safety oversight authority, which augments the enhanced authority of State Safety Oversight Agencies (SSOA), and if necessary, allows FTA to assume those same authorities in the absence of an effective SSO agency. FTA has the capability to assert this authority and, at my direction, will do so immediately. This increased oversight means that FTA will now directly enforce and investigate the safety oversight of WMATA Metrorail until the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia establish a fully functioning and capable SSOA. This expanded FTA enforcement effort will: include orders and directives pursuant to 49 U.S.C. § 5329(f) and (g); require WMATA to spend Federal funds to address safety deficiencies; and amend the Corrective Acton Plan (CAP) to include previous TOC notices of deficiencies, the implementation of which will be overseen directly by FTA with assistance from the TOC. The FTA investigation efforts will include unannounced facility inspections and issuance of directives as necessary to address safety deficiencies. The FTA will also coordinate a robust level of funding from existing resources to carry out enhanced oversight. The FTA will maintain this higher level of oversight until a compliant and capable SSOA is established to replace the TOC. WMATA must also immediately hire a capable General Manager who is able to correct the course at the transit agency and aggressively manage the implementation of the Corrective Action Plan, which has been approved by the FTA. The urgency of having accountable leadership at the helm of WMATA cannot be overstated. Daily operations of WMATA will continue to be run by WMATA and must be responsive to the FTA as it assumes direct leadership of safety oversight from the TOC. We believe this approach accomplishes the same goals as the NTSB's urgent recommendations, albeit with greater speed and within the responsible agency. The FTA has already taken many direct oversight actions this year, as can be seen on the FTA website at http://www.fta.dot.gov/, and this would continue and intensify that effort. The FTA recently conducted a comprehensive safety management inspection of WMATA Metrorail and Metro bus that made 54 safety findings, including 44 related to Metrorail. As a result, FTA issued a Safety Directive outlining 91 required actions that WMATA must take to improve safety, including 78 specifically for Metrorail. FTA approved last month and is now actively tracking and monitoring the implementation of the CAP that WMATA developed to address these issues. The FTA also audited the TOC and came to many of the same conclusions as the NTSB did about its shortcomings. By contrast, the NTSB recommendation shifts oversight from one agency to another one, creating confusion and a greater risk of slowing down improvements. More practically, WMATA does not have an understanding or familiarity with FRA regulations, and separating their rail and bus oversight into different regulatory structures would confuse and likely delay safety improvements. Because FTA has the authority under existing law, I am directing FTA to exert federal safety oversight over WMATA Metrorail and to use every reasonable aspect of its other authorities to address this situation. Under the law, FTA can direct safety activities of the SSOAs as well as the transit agencies. To address the safety concerns of WMATA, FTA has already conducted a Safety Management Inspection and issued a Safety Directive requiring WMATA to take a series of corrective measures. The law provides grant funding to increase the resources available to carry out these new requirements, and a timeline by which they must be achieved. Clearly, more needs to be done to ensure that there is sufficient safety oversight of WMATA until a MAP-21-compliant SSO regime is in place. The TOC has submitted a plan to achieve compliance, but it is not achievable in the short term. The approach we have outlined will allow for a ramping up of oversight of WMATA to a level consistent with what would be in place once a fully MAP-21-compliant SSOA is established. Therefore, it is essential that the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia proceed with all due haste to establish a fully compliant SSOA. The DOT will engage with the State and Federal officials from the region to expedite the required steps to replace the TOC with a fully functioning, sufficiently resourced SSO organization. Until a fully capable SSO is in place, the FTA will lead all oversight, inspection, and enforcement activities over WMATA.