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Posted at 12:47 PM ET, 07/27/2010

Safety and schedules on Metro: A balancing act

By David Alpert

"When safety is more important than schedules, their lessons will have been learned," NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority at Tuesday morning's National Transportation Safety Board hearing.

The hearing found some troubling problems with WMATA's safety practices. Track circuits had been failing regularly, one of them consistently since 1998. WMATA officials had been recording 8,000 "alarms" per week showing track circuit errors, which they ignored because they believed the system was failsafe. These problems, called "parasitic oscillations," still affect 290 circuits. WMATA employees tested the circuits and claimed they couldn't reproduce the problem, but it turns out they tested them wrong.

WMATA needs to fix these circuits and retrain or replace maintenance personnel who don't know how to properly test or maintain circuits. And it should do so quickly. WMATA should also replace the 1000 series railcars, the oldest cars in the fleet, a process that fortunately is underway.

However, the NTSB also fell into the common bureaucratic trap of ignoring the forest for the trees when it said that the 2000 series and 3000 series railcars have some safety dangers of their own and could "telescope" in a crash.

That may be true, but what can be done about it? Metro doesn't have the money to replace the 2000 and 3000 series cars. More importantly, the NTSB didn't articulate how safe or unsafe they are. In particular, is riding in them more dangerous than driving? If WMATA took those cars out of service, it would have to eliminate many trains. And if riders stopped riding because they were nervous about the railcars' safety, they'd be driving instead. Either way, they'd probably be less safe.

But that's not the concern of the NTSB officials, who are responsible only for increasing railway safety. If they scare people away from riding Metro, and some of those people die in car crashes, the crash victims aren't part of that NTSB division's safety record. Heck, if the NTSB shut down Metro, it could report progress on safety goals. That's why we have to keep in mind that its goals and ours, while often in harmony, aren't always.

The NTSB exposed many troubling facts about Metro's safety practices before and after the Red Line crash in June 2009. WMATA needs to fix the problems it can fix, as soon as possible. However, we also need to accept that some things about transportation will never be 100 percent safe, and that even some railcars that could be upgraded are still safer than private cars on the highway. It would be nice if NTSB acknowledged that fact as well.

David Alpert is founder and editor of Greater Greater Washington . The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.

By David Alpert  | July 27, 2010; 12:47 PM ET
Categories:  HotTopic, Local blog network, Metro, traffic, transportation  
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I've been reading Dave's entries on the GGW blog and think he does a very good job.

The following statement needs some clarification however:

"WMATA needs to fix these circuits and retrain or replace maintenance personnel who don't know how to properly test or maintain circuits."

In my experience the majority of mechanics and technicians at Metro are intelligent and take pride in their work. Technicians do not develop test procedures (aka 'PMIs'), the engineering staff along with middle and upper management do. Technicians simply follow the procedures outlined in the PMIs. To the best of my knowledge, the ATC techs who worked on the track circuit(s) involved in the June 22 crash did exactly what they were told to do by management and engineering personnel.

Retraining and refresher courses are always good ideas but suggesting that technicians be fired is uncalled for.

Posted by: mrnatural11 | July 27, 2010 3:27 PM | Report abuse

The NTSB did compare the safety of the Metro vs driving. Something like 13 people have been killed riding the metro in accidents in 30 years. That many people are killed driving in the DC area every two weeks.

Posted by: jlboygenius | July 27, 2010 5:02 PM | Report abuse

Ah, grasshopper does not seem familiar with the NTSB. The NTSB makes recommendations in a vacuum, without regard to cost or tradeoffs. They have always been that way.

Posted by: Wallenstein | July 27, 2010 5:08 PM | Report abuse

The elephant in the Metro safety room is neither money nor technology. It is the awful quality of management, mainly senior management, coupled with the negligent behavior of the board of directors. Only local government top officials, backed by DOT, can do anything about that.

Posted by: axolotl | July 27, 2010 6:17 PM | Report abuse

Just as I predicted, here's Alpert's "the NTSB is just too hard on Metro" column.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | July 27, 2010 7:09 PM | Report abuse

I don't fault the NTSB for not determining whether or not the Metro could actually afford the proposed remedies. The NTSB isn't responsible for the calculus of funding vs. safety, just to develop and provide the hard facts and recommendations as an independent agency without a vested interest in the findings.

The general idea is that political leaders in charge of actual funding can choose to provide funds to implement the NTSB recommendations or they may not. But without the NTSB recommendations, how could they ever justify funding the changes needed? This stuff doesn't happen in a vacuum.

A fair number of the nation's safety laws and rules are written in the blood of those who didn't survive design, management, or maintenance-related bad accidents. It may take further accidents before decision makers conclude that in the end, it's ultimately cheaper to address the underlying issues than to hope it's a rare one-off.

I have to wonder how much of the underlying problem is the fact that Metro is a multi-state agency with no one single agency with full oversight authority. You know the old saying: "Jack of all trades, master of none."

The Metro also has to contend with spending buy-in from multiple agencies with the potential to lead to watered-down spending budget provisions in order to satisfy all political masters.

As the purported ancient Chinese proverb roughly goes, we appear to be living in 'interesting times'.

Posted by: tronic1 | July 28, 2010 1:56 AM | Report abuse


I have been writing to those I believe may be interested in fixing the loss of occupancy detection problem at Metro for more than a year and to date have not received a reply. I, and probably hundreds more may have submitted solutions, but believe I have a solution that satisfies all of NTSB and Metro's concerns including costs and was wondering if you have a name and address of anyone interested in fixing the problem, and has the authority to do so, that would review my solution and, if he/she deems it appropriate, help to at least test my solution.

Thank you.

Posted by: rtolmei | July 29, 2010 6:12 PM | Report abuse

Boy, to the untrained eye, it sounds alot like he just advocated, "you can have trains or you can have safety but you cant have both, and we should vote to have trains."

'Best practices' of more successful transit properties has been a standard operating fix when one transit property falls into a hole. Surely APTA could lend some muscle in diagnosing and fixing the safety malaise that has infected Metro.

My suspicion is that there are too many folks up and yes down the line who are more worried above covering their cabooses than rooting out the problem. Money isnt always the default solution. But guts and honesty and desire for a solution have been in short supply from the Board down to the technicians since Gunn left the job. Even the Boston Brahmin, Dick White, too soon began to believe his own press and sucked down the sweet nectar of hubris rather than put his awesome brain to the task.

Metro is a mess and the NTSB report released this week should make regular riders shudder every time they board a train. For Alpert to suggest otherwise means he is drinking the Metro Kool-Aid.

Posted by: ResidentSkeptic | July 31, 2010 11:05 AM | Report abuse

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