With the acrimony between the political parties and the two chambers in Congress, crucial matters, such as Metrorail safety, are getting short shrift.
The issue is, of course, crucial to Montgomery County, given that 12 of Metro’s 27 Red Line stops are located within the county.
Anybody who was around the Washington area on June 22, 2009, recalls the horrible drama that unfolded that day when a train on the Red Line struck another, stationary, train during the afternoon rush hour. The crash occurred between the Takoma Park and Fort Totten stations, in the District.
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 that a faulty track circuit, part of the automatic train control system, was the cause.
Also in the wake of the accident, there was loud talk about the need for federal safety standards to govern subways and other mass transit
Now fast forward to 2012.
There still are no federal safety standards. But that doesn’t mean some lawmakers have given up the quest.
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 that 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 that 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-majority 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.
Last week, area congressional members from both sides of the Potomac sent a letter imploring conferees to include the safety provisions from the Senate bill in any forthcoming legislation.
In these contentious times, it remains to be seen what comes of the bills. What’s clear, though, is that Washington-area 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.