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Federal Probe Finds ‘Serious Safety Lapses’ In DC Public Transit

A report released Wednesday by the Federal Transportation Agency pointed out some major concerns with the public transportation system in Washington, D.C.

The FTA found that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s central control center, which is supposed to ensure the safety of the hundreds of thousands of people who ride the trains each day, is majorly understaffed and rife with distraction.

According to the report, staff at the transportation hub are not properly trained and have no formal guidelines as to how they are supposed to perform their jobs.

Despite the fact that control center workers knew they were being observed by the federal agency, they were still caught ignoring rules and using cell phones while working, the report said.

“These are serious findings that strongly indicate that, despite gains made since the Fort Totten accident, WMATA’s safety program is inadequate,” U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said in a statement. “WMATA management, its board of directors and its state safety oversight agency must work together to address FTA’s required actions, because the safety of passengers and personnel must be the top priority.”

The Ft. Totten accident Foxx referenced occurred in 2009, when a moving train rear-ended a stopped train directly ahead of it. The crash left nine people dead and around 80 injured, the deadliest in the history of the Metro rail system.

The 116-page FTA report seemed to indicate that the agency tried to rebound from the deadly incident, but organizational deficiencies and a lack of leadership have limited WMATA’s ability to resolve any of the major safety issues that led to the crash.

In response to the report, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said she thinks the agency is in need of some major changes.

“The FTA’s safety audit confirms my belief that WMATA is in need of a management restructuring and organizational turn-around,” she said in a statement. “I will continue to work with the District’s appointees to the Board of Directors and our regional partners to demand accountability.”

Severe under-staffing at the WMATA control center, an outdated computer system and a lack of maintenance accessibility were just a few of the 44 safety issues the FTA ordered WMATA to correct.

The report showed that WMATA currently employs just 34 train controllers, whose job is similar to that of an air traffic controller at an airport. They are 20 short of the 54 controllers needed to correctly function.

This under-staffing forces staff to work six or seven days of 12-hour shifts per week, yet management is still hard pressed to fill all the slots.

The FTA inspection is just the first of many ongoing investigations into the D.C. transit system.

The Government Accountability Office is currently looking into the agency for mismanaging millions of dollars in federal grant money, and next week, the National Transportation Safety Board will hold hearings about a January smoke incident that left a woman dead.

D.C.’s delegate to Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, said in a statement that the FTA findings are a “virtual mandate” that continuous monitoring of WMATA is necessary to protect the lives of passengers.

“No matter how you cut it, Metro still has a safety culture problem, especially at its Rail Operations Control Center, which manages abnormal and emergency events, like the smoke incident that occurred at L’Enfant Plaza Metro Station,” she said.

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