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Impatient for Metrorail progress

If you've been listening to the National Transportation Safety Board hearing on the June 22 Red Line crash, you've heard a broad-ranging discussion. Here's one thing you've heard little about: the June 22 Red Line crash.

I know they'll get to what caused the accident. I know that's the peg for these three days of hearings. But as a Metrorail rider, I find myself thinking like the annoying kid who keeps yelling, "Are we there yet?" The hearings had come to signal progress on the timeline back to normal operation of the train system. Instead, I'm hearing that a return to automatic train controls -- a key element in restoring normal operation of the system -- is still a year away.

The panelists today are talking about Metro's organization, and who reports what to whom. Fine. What's clear in that discussion is that the Metro board cannot serve as an oversight panel on the transit authority staff when it comes to technical issues. The board is a policy panel. This suggests that it would be a good idea to establish federal oversight of Metro and the nation's other transit systems.

But I'm getting impatient with the train delays and the crowding and the lurching as the trains enter the stations. The trains are being driven by their operators as a temporary safety measure, and that's causing many of these problems -- or at least making them worse.

So I'm conflicted: I want the trains to be safe, but I want this temporary period to be over with. The trains were built to operate automatically. They don't work right otherwise. But I wonder if anyone but the riders feels a sense of urgency about this.

By Robert Thomson  |  February 23, 2010; 4:00 PM ET
Categories:  Metro , Safety  | Tags: Dr. Gridlock, Metrorail  
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Dr. G., I don't know much about trains, but I ride the Metro to work every weekday. When you write, "The trains were built to operate automatically. They don't work right otherwise." do you mean to suggest that operating the trains manually in the long term might result in more wear and tear on trains and/or tracks compared to if they were run automatically? In other words, does manual operation result in short-term safety, but long-term problems?

Posted by: informedtraveller | February 23, 2010 4:15 PM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: Yes. Last Thursday, Metro board members began a discussion of the impact operating the trains in manual for a long time. One board member recalled that when this happened before, back in the late 90s, we had a problem with the wheels wearing down. Too often, the train cars had to be pulled from service so the wheels could be rounded. The operators were braking hard, and the wheels were getting flat on one side.

Also, the trains operate less efficiently when they are being driven by the person in the cab. So the trains are slower and the platforms are getting more crowded.

One last point: We've all been thinking of this as a trade off. We get more safety by giving up the convenience and efficiency of automatic control. We need to make sure that's right. Humans can make mistakes too, as we all may have noticed. The Red Line derailment at Farragut North may have been caused at least in part by human error. So are we really safer?

Posted by: rtthomson1 | February 23, 2010 5:04 PM | Report abuse

I would imagine that operating manually would put more stress on the brakes and motors as half the operators can't drive a train manually without turning it into a roller coaster ride.

My personal guess...we'll never return to automatic operation. Metro told us back in June/July that automatic operation was at least a year we are nine months later or so and it is still at least a year away. Wasn't there an article a while back saying that that new safety system was now in testing? And how has Kubicek kept his job? He's overseen the downfall of Metrorail and is arguably more responsible than Catoe. Instead he just gets promotions! Go Metro!

The worst thing metro can do right now is suffer another year of delays. With the fare hike taking effect this weekend and future fare hikes and service cuts only a few short months away the last thing they can do is inconvenience riders further. I won't argue that we need a safe system but a lot of this is overkill (sandwiching the 1000 series cars...I'm looking at you!) and will just drive more customers away (no pun intended).

Posted by: Razor04 | February 23, 2010 5:05 PM | Report abuse

With the current trend of Metro Lies service reductions, will we be down to 2 car trains by the time automatic operation comes back?

Posted by: member5 | February 23, 2010 5:50 PM | Report abuse

Thanks, Dr. G., for pointing out that there may not be a trade-off at all -- that we might be just as safe or safer with automatic operation. My impression is that requiring manual operation makes it look like Metro is doing something, and it makes the train operators feel safer. But we haven't seen any evidence that manual operation really is any safer, and we have lots of evidence of other problems that manual operation causes.

Please keep making this point. More people need to hear it. We need to get the trains back on automatic operation as soon as possible.

Posted by: robwilli | February 24, 2010 8:12 AM | Report abuse

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