Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Do government authorities get a pass on regulatory enforcement? … A look at Washington’s subway crash.

Last week I wrote that about the suppression of an EPA report identifying the locations of “high hazard” coal ash sludge sites. I questioned whether the federal government was giving another government entity preferential regulatory treatment, in this case the TVA -- which was the source of the original massive spill.

It appears this may have been the case of the fatal subway crash in Washington DC. In a report in the Washington Post today, a NTSB Board member says Metro failed to heed the advice of federal regulators to either strengthen the cars or take them out of service. It did neither. 

[National Transportation Safety] Board member Deborah Hersman also said the southbound train that crashed into another train on the Red Line near Fort Totten was one of the oldest in Metro's fleet. Five years ago, federal regulators said that model car should be strengthened to better protect occupants in the case of a collision. "We recommended to either retrofit those cars or to phase them out of the fleet," Hersman said. "They have not been able to do that and our recommendation was not addressed. So, it has been an unacceptable status." 

Metro officials have said that it was not clear that attempts to make the aging rail cars more crash-resistant would be successful. Retrofitting would not only be expensive, but could create new problems with propulsion and other aspects of operation, transit officials said at the time. In addition, such retrofitting was deemed too expensive for the cash-strapped system, especially because the cars are due to be replaced as soon as possible, officials have said.  Metro decided it would phase out the old cars as it purchased new vehicles. But today, all the old cars remain in service and comprise about one-third of the Metro fleet.

 Had an airline ignored airworthiness directives leading to deaths of its riders, there would be calls for criminal charges and heavy fines. We will have to wait and see if the same rules apply to government owned transit systems.

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