The MetroRail System Is Not Safe

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) and their wayward MetroRail system just keeps looking worse and worse. In the aftermath of last month’s fatal rail collision, we keep learning all kinds of new and frightening facts. We learned that the track circuits are the only sources of information for MetroRail’s primary control system and ‘fail-safe’ backup . . . any first-year engineering student can tell you that having lives riding on ‘redundant’ systems that share a single point of failure is inexcusable. We learned that MetroRail had simply ignored the safety recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) after previous (thankfully non-fatal) collisions. We learned that the ‘flickering’ on the track circuit where the collision happened went on, either un-detected or ignored, for days before the accident on that section of track.

Following the incident, and continuing up until some time last week, WMATA/MetroRail officials insisted that all circuits in the system had been inspected since the accident and they were all operating properly except for the one where the collision happened. According to The Washington Post, these officials are either lying or have been misinformed by their staff (either way, inexcusable). Similar problems have been found in at least six—and possibly thirteen or more—of the critical track circuits throughout the MetroRail system. All indications are that Metro has a systemic problem on their hands, not an isolated incident. All those first-year engineering students could have seen this coming, of course, since complex ‘fail-safe’ systems built with single points of failure always fail sooner or later.

The NTSB already recommended that Metro put a backup train detection system in-place, and Metro has already claimed that nobody in the world has such a backup system. The problem is, um, many transit rail systems do have fail-safe backups. The BART system in San Francisco has many similarities with MetroRail since they were built around the same time with many of the same components and suppliers. The BART folks ran into a similar circuit flickering problem in the ’70s, and developed and implemented a fail-safe system then. It’s been working well for BART for about thirty years, so it’s a bit perplexing to hear Metro tell us no such system exists.

Enough. WMATA cannot continue to try and save face by lying to its customers and the taxpayers who fund its operations. Most importantly, MetroRail can’t continue to play games with the lives of its riders. They already have blood on their hands, as far as I’m concerned.

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.