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Transparency Watch: DC January 12 Transit Accident — NTSB Schedules Hearings June 23-24 on Metro Safety

dcogcadmin | June 7, 2015

UPDATE 5/3/16: NTSB report on the 2015 incident issued today. Press release is here, with link to synopsis. Full report still to come.

What should the public know when an accident calls into question the safety of a rail system that moves 700,000 of the region’s residents every day?  Does reliable information really need to take years?

The Open Government Coalition has been monitoring transparency of related agencies — transit (WMATA, operated by an independent organization governed by all three jurisdictions involved, and without any statutory information release policies in place), D.C. government (where FOIA is ill-suited to breaking news), and federal investigators (tight-lipped engineers, typically staying mum for months in all safety investigations, as legal liability can rest on findings) — in the wake of the tunnel fire and related train evacuation at the L’Enfant Plaza rail station on January 12, 2015. The accident led to one death and great public concern over basic transit operations, especially maintenance, of the aging rail system that started service forty years ago in 1976.  

The Coalition’s annual Open Government Summit, held in D.C. on March 17, featured a panel on WMATA transparency questions (see “Metro’s Secrecy Highlight of Summit“). Earlier OGC blog posts on the issues include this one.

How difficult assessing the incident is–and the alleged conflict between getting it fast and getting it right–may be in sharper view in two days of upcoming hearings by the National Transportation Safety Board. The hearings are “investigative,” and a witness list is not yet available.  The Board’s final report is expected next year.

Topics include emergency response efforts, WMATA’s efforts to improve its overall safety and safety culture since the Fort Totten accident in June 2009, and the state of WMATA’s infrastructure.

The hearings begin at 9:00 a.m., Tuesday, June 23, at the NTSB Board Room and Conference Center, 429 L’Enfant Plaza, SW, Washington, DC, and continue the next day,.

Details of the investigation are here; the hearing notice is here and the two-day agenda is here (showing four technical panels without names). The public is not involved.

The agency has been unable to agree on future directions and a search for a new chief executive, plagued by withdrawal of an initial candidate slate, is ongoing with the board apparently still in disagreement over the type of leader desired. Internal conflicts went public recently when a Virginia transportation official criticized the slow pace of defining the CEO job and getting someone on board. According to a June 2 letter revealed in the Washington Post, Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne wrote the transit board a letter scolding that “continued inaction on this matter is unacceptable.” Said Layne, in effect, it’s not only the hardware that needs repair. “It is apparent that only a new, bold, dynamic leader will be able to right the ship and regain the trust of the public,” he wrote. “Unfortunately those tasks become more difficult with each passing day.”