Safety and schedules on Metro: A balancing act
"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.
| July 27, 2010; 12:47 PM ET
Categories: HotTopic, Local blog network, Metro, traffic, transportation
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