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Where crash report leaves Metro riders

Deborah A.P. Hersman, the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the panel's recommendations regarding the Red Line crash are not an indictment of any individual, but they come pretty close to saying it was everybody's fault.

The findings and recommendations are a withering rebuke of those collectively responsible for operating the nation's second-largest subway system.

The track circuits failed, causing a train to disappear from the monitoring system so that a following train was launched toward it, the NTSB found. The crash could have occurred at any time after new equipment was installed on June 19. Hundreds of trains had crossed over the vulnerable site before conditions were just right for the crash on June 22.

But the safety board went back further than that, back to the 2005 near-crash in the Rosslyn tunnel when safety equipment failed to slow trains. There was no "safety culture" in place that would have led to effective corrective action, the NTSB said.

And the safety panel went further, making their conclusions unmistakably clear: The Metro board has not done its job as a safety monitor. It has been passive on safety. It has not demanded the information it needs from the staff to fulfill its responsibilities for passenger and staff safety. The last line of defense, the Tri-State Oversight Committee, is no defense since it doesn't have the clout or the expertise to carry out its assignment.

People and systems failed at every level. And it will take years to fix this. Meanwhile, people will either be riding on old rail cars that the nation's leading safety panel says are unsafe in a crash. Or, should the board decide to take those cars out of service before they can be replaced, the passengers are guaranteed an intolerably crowded ride.

And at least for many months to come, they will continue to ride under the restrictions -- including manual control of the trains -- imposed to compensate for years of failed oversight.

By Robert Thomson  | July 27, 2010; 3:29 PM ET
Categories:  Metro  | Tags:  Dr. Gridlock, Metrorail, Red Line crash  
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Ugh. Metro is just depressing lately.

Posted by: Langway4Eva | July 27, 2010 3:29 PM | Report abuse

At some point, it comes down to the riders. I would rather ride in overcrowded, slow cars rather than gamble that my unsafe car will get lucky and make it to the next station without crashing and squishing me. Then, I would demand that the Metro board stop all expansion until they replace the unsafe cars and spend the money on fixing the signalling problems and safety training for the staff. Finally, I would also be petitioning my government reps to start dedicating some serious cash to this system so that expansion can continue... after the safety problems are 100% fixed.

Posted by: will4567 | July 27, 2010 3:34 PM | Report abuse

The problem is: As indicated by the NTSB's findings, a significant portion of Metro's problem is the lack of a safety culture. Without any regulatory body that has any teeth to enforce a change in the organization and its safety practices, Metro will not make any significant improvements. As demonstrated by the NTSB, Metro had a rather large warning in Rosslyn in 2005 and did NOTHING.

It cost lives to get this far. Left on their own, Metro won't get any better. History has shown and will continue to show that as being the only lesson that, unfortunately, will come out of this.

Posted by: mika_england | July 27, 2010 3:45 PM | Report abuse

"At some point, it comes down to the riders. I would rather ride in overcrowded, slow cars rather than gamble that my unsafe car will get lucky and make it to the next station without crashing and squishing me."
I find it incomprehensible that these are the two options: unsafe or uncomfortable. Metro's riders are paying a premium -- among, if not THE the highest fares in the nation -- to ride an unsafe system with limited service hours, unsafe equipment, inoperable escalators, unreliable schedules, absent HVAC and poor customer service to boot. It comes down to the riders? No. It comes down to systemwide negligence and incompetence which has been allowed to run amok for years. Someone must step in and introduce accountability and consequence to the situation, and the Metro board should be at the top of the list of those responsible for the outright failure of the system. Their failure to take definitive action in remedying the system's myriad problems has created a culture of indifference that has permeated the system. The only "solution" they seem capable of crafting is to raise the already astronomical fares paid by customers.

Posted by: sabine12 | July 27, 2010 3:56 PM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: I wish I could offer you a comprehensive definition of what Metro needs to fix. My concern about today is that we'll all get focused on creating "a culture of safety" and find that the trains still are overcrowded, either bunched up or too far apart and too hot. Plus, the escalators still won't work.

A safety board member, speaking in another context, noted that the safety board can focus on one thing: safety. And I think to riders, that's the most important thing. But it's not the only thing.

Metro riding remains an extremely safe way of traveling. How do we get the other things we care about attended to along with safety?

Posted by: Robert Thomson | July 27, 2010 4:08 PM | Report abuse

So what exactly do all these fare hikes fix? Not the escalators, not the elevators and certainly not insuring rider safety. At this point my $4.20 fare , and going up again in a week, provides me a wait in a crowed non air conditioned station where I can then enter a crowded non air conditioned metro car where I can stand for 40 minutes and get tossed around like a rag doll to finally depart and walk down the non-working escalator thanking the gods that I managed to get off with my life. Yup my car is looking better everyday.

Posted by: lucl74 | July 27, 2010 4:11 PM | Report abuse

This is why we should have a choice. You can wait for a "new" car and have will4567 feel you up, or take a chance with an "old" car and not being molested.


Posted by: jiji1 | July 27, 2010 4:13 PM | Report abuse

"Metro riding remains an extremely safe way of traveling. How do we get the other things we care about attended to along with safety?"

Change the culture of apathy. A workforce that, from top to bottom, is invested in making the system good will make everything better, including safety.

Unfortunately, Metro management seems either unwilling or unable to proactively change the culture.

Posted by: DragonofAnger | July 27, 2010 4:15 PM | Report abuse

You know what this reminds me of as I read it? NASA, specifically the results of the investigations into the Challenger and Columbia accidents. Hopefully WMATA does not follow NASA's path of focusing so much on one or two things to address the NTSB's issues that other critical issues then fall by the wayside.

Posted by: 1995hoo | July 27, 2010 4:20 PM | Report abuse

For a hoot, here's a New York Times article on the newly opened Subway in New Delhi:

Some choice quotes:
"It is scrupulously clean, impeccably maintained and almost unfailingly punctual. Its cars are the latest models, complete with air-conditioning and even power outlets to let commuters charge their mobile phones and laptops. Its signaling and other safety technology is first rate, and the system is among the best in the world, urban transport experts say. Despite cheap fares, less than 20 cents for the shortest ride and about 67 cents for the longest, the system manages to turn an operating profit."

"The Metro has contracted out as much of its work as possible, keeping its payrolls slim and its management structure as simple as possible"

"Pawan Sharma, a civil servant who commutes from the western suburb of Dwarka, was so impressed with the Metro that he signed up to be a volunteer monitor. With a blue badge affixed to his chest, he patrols the train cars for two hours in the morning and evening, looking for people breaking the rules. He receives no compensation, not even free Metro rides."

Posted by: AIRS91 | July 27, 2010 4:24 PM | Report abuse

Until an independent body comes in with the authority to fire management and employees without rebuttal from Union legal trickery, Metro will remain dysfunctional and unsafe. Receivership now.

Posted by: 123cartoon | July 27, 2010 4:28 PM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: lucl74, the most accurate thing Metro management has said this year is that the fare hikes will fix nothing. About that, they have been absolutely upfront with us.

The fare hikes for the operating budget and the capital budget agreements negotiated with the local jurisdictions are as expensive as Metro thinks riders and governments will tolerate, but not so expensive as to make things significantly better than they are now.

Old rail cars will be replaced, and old tracks will be replaced so that the new cars don't fall off them. But that's not very ambitious.

Above, will4567 proposed that Metro stopped expanding till it replaces the old cars and fixes the signal system. But Metro stopped paying for expansion years ago. The Dulles Metrorail expansion will be paid for by Virginia and the federal government, and the project itself will pay for the first round of new rail cars. So we wouldn't gain much by stopping one thing to do the other.

Also, at this point, Kawasaki doesn't have much flexibility about how fast it can deliver those new rail cars.

Like the NTSB staffers said today, the fixes we want to see are going to take years -- at least.

Posted by: Robert Thomson | July 27, 2010 4:35 PM | Report abuse

123cartoon - i totally agree with you. Until someone from outside steps in with authority, nothing is going to change. to me all of this is going into one ear and out the other.

Posted by: caramal78 | July 27, 2010 5:03 PM | Report abuse

I agree with 123cartoon in that I don't see any alternative other than (temporary) federal control. Any organization that has been around for 30+ years gathers inertia making culture change difficult--no matter what challenge is being posed. Metro's operation and governance involves three states plus the Feds, and members of the board are appointed. The public's input is limited to the rider advisory council, which was only established in 2005. Now was that before or after the WashPost revealed that board members were driving their complimentary SUVs to Metro meetings?

It makes sense that the Feds would (temporarily) take over Metro because they can't live without each other. The Feds provide a huge share of ridership with their transportation fringe benefits; Metro keeps the Federal government open, because our roadways, buses, and bikewalks simply couldn't absorb all those extra trips.

Posted by: bikes-everywhere | July 27, 2010 5:18 PM | Report abuse

> And at least for many months to
> come, they will continue to ride
> under the restrictions -- including
> manual control of the trains --
> imposed to compensate for years of
> failed oversight.

As an engineer reading the NTSB reports, and learning more about block signalings as I do; I have to express my alarm over the continual harping over so-called automatic mode as if it is the solution for everything save maybe bad breath.

First, in "manual" mode, the operator can NOT go any faster or tailgate more than in "automatic" -- the same basic block limits apply. And if the block signals fail, as they did, automatic won't save you. You could even make a case that if 112's operator HAD been in manual mode, she might have had 3 seconds more to brake...

We all saw the consequences of blindly using automatic mode; such caused the Shady Grove crash fatality.

As a rider, I hope WMATA resumes automatic ops when & if it is *safe* to do so, as evaluated by outside experts; and NOT before.

Posted by: j_oper | July 27, 2010 6:13 PM | Report abuse

If I were 30 years younger, probably even 20 years younger, I think I could put up with the broken down elevators and escalators, the oppressively hot cars and stations, the rude employees, and the passengers who pretend not to see older people so that they don't have to offer their seats. But at this point in my life, I just can't; I want my life to be easier as I age, not harder. I'll pay the extra money to drive.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | July 27, 2010 7:02 PM | Report abuse

Have the Army run it and designate door-jammers as enemy combatants. Win-win.

Posted by: fireball72 | July 27, 2010 10:08 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps we Metro riders should rise up and take some action beyond our ardent complaining and moaning (and, yes, I'm a big complainer.) It would not be inappropriate for us to organize some demonstrations at Metro headquarters and stations--or even on the Mall--to demonstrate our anger and concern. And how about haranguing our Senators and Representatives on a regular basis. Or boycotting Metro and finding other ways to get to work--perhaps one day a week even.
At the very least we should be demanding federal regulation and oversight. Also we should be able to use the federal transit benefit towards parking, until the safety issues are resolved. Would anyone fly anywhere if the risks to safety were as significant as those we face on Metro? I doubt it.

Posted by: herbsdr | July 28, 2010 7:43 AM | Report abuse

I heard on WTOP last night (but have not been able to confirm) that most of the Metro board blew off the part of the NTSB meeting on Tuesday where they stated their recommendations - and some Metro board members did not show at all. Does anybody know?

Posted by: AIRS91 | July 28, 2010 9:05 AM | Report abuse

Sadly my and others experience with Metro over the years is poor customer service. Until this changes, sadly I do not forsee much positive change at Metro, including safety. Sadly their 1st level customer support is very poor in most instances, no or bad attitude response, whether by phone, email, or in person. There are exceptions, but many of these employees come from school backgrounds where they are poorly educated (anyone who knows the DC Metro area knows which ones). This discourages customers who are still forced to use Metro to report issues. Not long ago, I found a suspicious item on a train at an end of the line train station, which I reported to the station manager, but he seemed more interested in his personal phone call. I am at the point, unless it is a life or death situation, not to bother reporting anything to Metro, as I cannot deal with customer service which on a scale of 1 to 10 I sadly give a negative value. Sadly I found the only way in the past to get some people in Metro in gear is to escalate the issue to local officials or the local department of transportation.

I am so glad the jurisdiction in my local area ditched Metrobus to run their own transit service. It is so seldom now that I ride a Metrobus, with its late running and ghost buses, leaky buses when it rains, etc. My local area buses are more reliable, cleaner, more responsive drivers and customer service staff more pleasant to work with when issues do arise.

Posted by: commute201 | July 28, 2010 10:31 AM | Report abuse

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