The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), informally known as Metro, operates the rapid transit rail system in the Washington, D.C., area—and they do it very, very poorly. I have a long list of complaints about the system. Here are just a few: The fares are the highest among comparable systems in the U.S., the service has a very limited reach and has not expanded at an acceptable rate, existing service is spotty and unreliable, employees are generally uneducated and unhelpful, station maintenance is woefully poor, a high percentage of system escalators and elevators are always out of service, a high percentage of rail cars have climate control malfunctions at any given time, communication with customers—when it happens at all—is usually inaccurate and misleading, the almost-daily system delays are under-reported and inaccurately reported (e.g., a one-hour delay is reported as a twelve-minute delay), the fare system is unnecessarily complex and confusing, etc., etc., etc.
These are long-standing problems, but just in the last month Metro’s mismanagement has repeatedly made the news.
On July 3, a Green Line train lost power and the over-three hundred passengers were made to wait more than a half-hour in the summer heat on un-ventilated rail cars. According to multiple passengers, the train operator finally instructed them to leave the train . . . but Metro, in a typical ‘blame the passenger’ move, claims that the passengers self-evacuated without authorization. Well, I would have self-evacuated after being forced to sit in a steaming hot rail car for more than thirty minutes against my will too. Even if Metro’s official story is true, the botched evacuation is the problem, not the passengers’ exercise of rational self-preservation.
Then, on July 12, a committee of the Metro board signed-off on a plan that would allow the transit system to operate fewer trains and provide a lesser level of service, even amid repeated fare hikes. It is unclear whether the full board will approve the plan, but the fact that it even came up for discussion as a serious proposal is inexplicable.
On July 16, the central computer system at Metro’s command center crashed . . . twice . . . resulting in system-wide shutdowns. Like any first-year engineering student can tell you, all critical systems should have redundancy. In other words, if the system crashes its backup should jump into action immediately. Metro, however, doesn’t subscribe to the engineering doctrine of redundancy—even with its most critical safety systems.
These things are troubling, yes, but what is most troubling is Metro’s lackadaisical approach to safety. Computer shutdowns and evacuation delays and broken escalators are problems, but nobody is likely to die because of them. But people have died because Metro doesn’t think it needs to follow National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommendations.
In 1996, following a collision that killed a train operator, the NTSB recommended that Metro reinforce its oldest ‘1000 series’ rail cars to prevent a potentially-deadly telescoping effect. Metro ignored the recommendation, citing prohibitive costs. Then in 2004, following a collision that resulted in no deaths but over twenty serious injuries, the NTSB again recommended reinforcing the ‘1000 series’ cars or removing them from service. Again, Metro ignored the recommendation. Then in 2009, two Red Line trains collided, killing nine and injuring more than seventy. All nine deaths occurred in an un-reinforced, still in-service ‘1000 series’ rail car that telescoped in the collision—thirteen years after the NTSB first warned Metro about the problem.
After the deadly 2009 accident, Metro moved all ‘1000 series’ cars to the middle of trains—a zero-cost stop-gap measure that could have been done after the 1996 accident, or after the 2004 accident, but wasn’t. And despite repeated pleading from the NTSB that Metro remove them from service entirely, there are still over 250 of those ‘1000 series’ cars in revenue service on the system today. Replacement ‘7000 series’ cars aren’t scheduled to begin entering service until at least next year.
This is the most egregious and inexcusable example of Metro ignoring NTSB recommendations, but there are more. Following the first major accident on Metro, an underground derailment in 1982 that killed three passengers, the NTSB made a total of thirty-four recommendations. To Metro’s credit, most of them were implemented . . . but recommendations for modifying trains’ overspeed control systems, installing self-contained battery-powered emergency lighting in rail cars, and installing a derailment detection system on trains were all ignored.
Metro has also failed to implement a fail-safe, redundant mechanism of detecting trains’ presence on track circuits. They claim that no such redundant system exists, even though San Francisco’s BART system and many others around the world have them. As a temporary ‘solution,’ Metro is testing for circuit failures much more often than they used to . . . but this is an insufficient response, even though the NTSB itself characterizes it as ‘acceptable.’ Checking the system for circuit failures twice daily will reduce the likelihood of collisions, which is better than nothing, but it isn’t actually providing any redundancy. Metro is relying on sheer chance—a fervent hope that two trains won’t collide between a circuit failure at 2pm (for example) and the next twice-daily check at, say, 10 p.m. These checks probably would have prevented the 2009 collision, where the circuit had been misbehaving unnoticed for several days before tragedy struck, but we need to solve the problem. Anything less is not ‘acceptable’ in my book, no matter what the NTSB says.
So, what can we do we do about this?
The only way to fix Metro is for our political leaders to demand accountability from the wayward transit agency. The NTSB has no regulatory authority; they make recommendations, but cannot enforce any action. In the world of the airlines, NTSB recommendations are usually referred to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and the FAA then issues airworthiness directives that have the force of law. Airlines must comply, or else they must stop flying the affected planes. There is no federal equivalent to the FAA with regulatory authority over regional rail systems; we do have a Federal Transit Administration (FTA), but it doesn’t have nearly as much authority as the FAA.
But we don’t need it to. There is a much simpler, easier solution. What we need to do is hit Metro where it really hurts: their budget. Future outlays of federal and state money for Metro operations should be made contingent upon Metro’s compliance with all outstanding NTSB recommendations. If Metro won’t comply, or at least move forward with a plan for achieving compliance in a reasonable amount of time, then we shouldn’t give them our tax dollars. You wouldn’t support giving government handouts to an airline that didn’t comply with NTSB recommendations, or a car company that didn’t comply with National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) guidelines, would you? So why give government handouts to Metro?
And when Metro fails to comply with this simple ultimatum, all the government money that had been earmarked for them should be invested in their competitors instead: the road network and local non-WMATA bus and transit systems like Maryland’s MARC rail system, Virginia’s VRE rail system, Fairfax Connector buses, DC, Circulator buses, and so on. Metro is so badly mismanaged that, even with the highest fares in the country, it would probably go-under in a matter of days without government funding. It could then be sold-off at a bankruptcy fire-sale to the highest bidders. Maybe somebody will be able to salvage it and make it into something useful again, although the new owners would need to be bound by the same demand for compliance with NTSB recommendations. If the system is so far-gone that salvage wouldn’t be possible, then we’ll at least get some monetary recompense from selling valuable government-owned assets.
When private bus operators don’t comply with safety requirements, we shut them down. When airlines don’t follow safety regulations, we shut them down too. Why shouldn’t Metro be held to the same standard? The regulatory conditions are different, but our political leaders—if they would grow some backbones—could easily achieve the same outcomes.