Blame for the Metro Crash

The Metrorail system is deeply inculcated into the fabric of transportation in the DC Metro Area.  Everyone uses it, at least once or twice.  It is a testament to the fantastic success a rapid transit rail system can be, especially one spanning several different conflicting jurisdictions and built during an era when the construction of public transportation usually gave way to highways, interchanges, and parking lots.  The tight integration into our everyday lives is what makes Monday’s crash so disturbing for so many.

And now the blame starts circulating.  The results of the National Transportation Safety Board investigation will not likely be known for more than a year, but the root cause of the problem is obvious to anyone with a sense of the Metrorail’s history: The system has been underfunded for decades, robbing funds from necessary capital improvement and deferring maintenance in order to simply keep operating.  Just this past march, we played the same game again.

The local jurisdictions have been wringing their hands over dedicated funding.  Metro must beg, borrow, and steal to keep the trains running, and this accident is the direct result.  Mayor Fenty recognizes this fact, and took some of the blame on Good Morning America today.

The Federal government has also recognized both the lack of funding and that a significant portion of the Federal Government takes the Metro to work.  It has offered up $150 million per year to Metro if DC, Maryland, and Virginia all agreed to pony up $50 million each.  The offer has been on the table for years, and each jurisdiction has had its hand in stalling.  Virginia was the lone hold-out for a couple of years, but DC is currently to blame for the current delay.

As shameful as the current lack of funding is, such a massive cash infusion should never have been necessary.  Local jurisdictions failed to fund the system correctly in the first place.  This accident rests squarely on the shoulders of every politician elected to the Virginia General Assembly, the Maryland General Assembly, and the DC Council in the past thirty years.  Everyone knew this was coming, and they failed to act; blood is on their hands.  Greater Greater Washington sums it up nicely:

In the past, WMATA has followed some NTSB recommendations and not followed others. Two recommendations which they did not successfully complete include the installation of data recorders on all railcars and full retirement or reinforcement of the 1000 Series Railcars. They are currently taking a lot of heat for this, but in reality, they have had little choice in the matter.

The 1000 Series makes up about one-third of the Metro Fleet. Removing them from the tracks would mean major cutbacks in rail service. They’re already scheduled for retirement when replaced by the new 7000 Series in a few years. And while data recorders would have made the NTSB investigation easier, it would probably have not prevented this crash. Perhaps this tragedy will serve as a wakeup call to everyone in the process. Metro is underfunded, and has been for years. Deferred maintenance is taking its toll, and is keeping railcars in service longer than they should be. Everyone, from the local jurisdictions to the federal government should be willing to fund upgrades, especially considering that lives are at stake.

In the meantime, if you’re suddenly afraid of taking the Metro: Don’t be. Driving a car is still orders-of-magnitude more dangerous than transit. Two fatal crashes in over thirty years is a damn good record, and you’re a fool to fear the Metro more than your car.