By Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. safety regulators on Wednesday recommended urgent federal oversight of Washington's troubled subway system, which has been plagued by smoky tunnels, breakdowns and deadly accidents.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) called for Metrorail, the second-busiest U.S. subway system after New York's, to be put under the watch of the Federal Railroad Administration, the agency said in a statement.
"There is now a lack of independent safety oversight of Metrorail," NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said. “This is an unacceptable gap in system safety.”
An NTSB investigation has found little improvement in the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's (WMATA) safety oversight since a 2009 Metrorail accident that killed nine people, it said. In the past 33 years, the NTSB has had 11 investigations into WMATA rail accidents that killed 18 people.
Metrorail has faced criticism for years over unreliable service, equipment breakdowns and smoke in tunnels.
A woman died and more than 80 were made ill in January when a train became stranded in a smoky tunnel. Metrorail tried to get the train back to a platform but failed because of electrical malfunctions.
The January accident drew criticism from Congress. Metrorail carries more than 700,000 passengers a day in the U.S capital and the Washington and Virginia suburbs.
An inspection report by the Federal Transit Administration in June found 54 serious safety lapses in the WMATA's rail-and-bus system, mostly in the subway. The report pointed to shortfalls at the operations control center and in track maintenance.
WMATA depends on safety supervision from the six-member Tri-State Oversight Committee. The NTSB said the panel lacked the power to issue orders or levy fines and had no enforcement authority.
The NTSB asked that the Department of Transportation seek authority from Congress to designate the Washington system a "commuter authority" so that it can come under Federal Railroad Administration oversight. The railroad agency now regulates seven urban rail systems.
WMATA interim General Manager Jack Requa said in a statement the transit system was addressing recommendations it had received previously from the NTSB and other agencies.
"We welcome the support we have received from all of our oversight agencies and regional partners, as we work on our common goal of improving safety for WMATA’s customers and employees," he said.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Bill Trott)