Metro’s Epic Fail

I am absolutely disappointed in the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA, ‘Metro’). I’ve been disappointed in them before, and have criticized them before many times on this site, but their utter incompetence has now resulted in deaths. It’s long-past time for a complete re-do on the leadership of this transit system.

First, when I wrote about last week’s horrific MetroRail crash, I guessed that both the Automatic Train Control (ATC) system and it’s ‘fail-safe’ backup, Automatic Train Protection (ATP), used the same source of data to determine the location of other trains. My guess was, sadly, correct. The track circuit system that provides both ATC and ATP with information about the locations of nearby trains provides a single point of failure. Even those of us who aren’t transportation engineers can tell you that ATC and ATP should each rely on multiple, independent sources of data. A simultaneous failure of these two systems should be effectively impossible, but the system was under-engineered. There is no excuse for this.

Second, MetroRail has only now begun to place the old ‘1000’ series rail cars in the center of its trains, with sturdier, newer cars on each end. The NTSB requested over four years ago that Metro either reinforce these cars or remove them from service, and Metro did neither. Moving them to the center of trains (so they do not bear the brunt of collisions) is a reasonable stop-gap, and this train arrangement would likely have reduced or eliminated the injuries and deaths last week. This rearrangement should have been implemented years ago. There is no excuse for this.

Third, and perhaps most incredibly, the NTSB investigation has revealed that Metro performed track maintenance five days before the recent accident on that segment of the track, and for the five days between the maintenance and the collision that particular track circuit ‘flickered’—sometimes working fine, and sometimes failing to detect the presence of trains. For five days Metro dodged the bullet, and then the tragedy occurred. If Metro detected the ‘flicker’ and didn’t fix it, the officials involved are murderers. If Metro did not detect the ‘flicker’, the system lacks proper testing and monitoring systems. There is no excuse for this.

The failure to identify and/or repair this circuit problem, combined with the failure to place properly reinforced rail cars on the ends of trains, combined with a flawed fail-safe system likely all came together in this terrible incident. Each of these three likely contributing causes of the accident fall back on Metro’s failed engineering design and failed management system that didn’t identify and mitigate these issues earlier. Enough is enough. Metro has to change, and Metro has to change now. There can be no more gambling with riders’ lives.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.