Step Back, Doors Closing: D.C.’s Subway Debacle
By Rachel Cole
WasteWatcher, April 2017
For anyone familiar with the subway system in Washington, D.C., the warning, “step back, doors closing,” alerts riders to the dangers of trying to beat the trains’ automatic doors, which are not as forgiving as those on elevators. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), known as “Metro” to Washingtonians, first ran its trains in 1976. It started out positively, but the system has fallen from grace after years of poor service and intermittent reliability, not to mention several fatal incidents, and riders are leaving the service at increasing rates.
On March 15, 2016, WMATA announced it would shut down the following day for emergency inspection of underground power cables. The shutdown had been preceded by a cable fire on March 14, similar to a “smoke incident” that occurred on January 12, 2015 and led to the death of an elderly woman at L’Enfant Plaza station.
After a 29-hour examination of the entire system to address safety concerns, Metro embarked on a year-long rehabilitation process called SafeTrack. According to WMATA’s website, the SafeTrack program is “an accelerated track work plan to address safety recommendations and rehabilitate the Metrorail system to improve safety and reliability” and would fit three years of repair work into a single year. There would be shorter hours of operation, single tracking during rush hour, and station closures, all of which come at a higher cost to riders. However, SafeTrack has already been found to be less than successful before it has even finished.
On March 29, 2017, Government Accountability Office (GAO) Director of Physical Infrastructure Mark Goldstein testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations on the progress of SafeTrack. The GAO found that WMATA did not follow leading industry standards when it came to planning SafeTrack; data was not comprehensively collected on assets and their condition; alternatives to SafeTrack were not analyzed; and a project management plan was not developed until after work had begun. For example, a train derailed on July 29, 2016 due to an interlocking failure, but SafeTrack had not included interlocking systems in the plan to improve that particular station. Interlocking systems, which help trains cross from one track to another and are part of the so-called “third rail” system, were not included because the group that led the inspections is not responsible for the maintenance of third rail systems, according to the GAO. In other words, the track was not entirely assessed before repairs started.
SafeTrack isn’t Metro’s first endeavor to overhaul the system. In 2010, WMATA approved “Metro Forward,” another rehabilitation attempt that followed the 2009 Fort Totten crash that left nine people dead and several more injured. Metro Forward aimed to bring the system into compliance with National Transportation Safety Board recommendations and to purchase new railcars and buses. The plan had a price tag of $5 billion over six years. Despite this large investment, the smoke incident at the L’Enfant Plaza station in 2015 showed it did not work.
WMATA’s workforce is often at the heart of Metro’s woes. There have been incidents of train operators blowing through stop signals, safety inspectors falsifying reports, and other problems. WMATA’s fights with its largest union, Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 689, are well-documented. They often involve overtime pay or blame-laying for the culture of low safety standards. Despite overwhelming evidence that several WMATA employees disregarded safety requirements and basic maintenance procedures, it has proven to be difficult to fire them.
Metro should be run like a business that responds to the needs of its customers and not an institution that is beholden to politicians and union bosses. A government takeover of WMATA is not the solution: Amtrak is evidence of the failures that follow government-run companies. The private sector responds quickly and efficiently when the market has a need; ridesharing companies, like Uber and Lyft, have filled the gaps in transportation needs of those who live and work in the nation’s capital (and they are also part of the reason for reduced Metro ridership).
Where quasi-governmental entities fail, the private sector delivers. As transportation alternatives become more competitive vis-a-vis Metro’s failures, WMATA would be mindful to step back, because the doors are closing.