Talkin’ Transit: Hard Questions

Photo courtesy of
‘Franconia-Springfield metro station’ courtesy of ‘nevermindtheend’

So Metro, now what?

That’s the question in the back of everyone’s minds here in the District after Monday’s tragic Metro accident. It’s not an easy question to ask and in the coming days, how John Catoe and WMATA answers it may well make or break the transit agency.

It will certainly redefine it, for good or ill.

One of the biggest issues I’m seeing so far is the continued lack of communication from WMATA. From the top down, Metro needs a serious reworking of how it communicates with the public, emergency personnel and with itself. Catoe’s shameful performance on WTOP yesterday morning is just one poor example; his response was a canned one, not addressing the reporter’s question but instead rambling into an answer I’d heard verbatim elsewhere. The response was so off the mark that WTOP had to interrupt him twice to try bringing him back to focus.

But more damning is the failure of Metro to let emergency responders know what the magnitude of the situation was in the first critical minutes after the collision. DCFD officials have been critical of how understated the accident was described; fortunately, rescuers realized the magnitude of the incident upon arrival and summoned additional help. But the question remains – what if the proper amount of help had arrived at the start? Would some of the victims be alive today?

Photo courtesy of
‘Navy Yard Metro Fare Gates’ courtesy of ‘Kevin H.’

And of course we have to mention Metro’s shameful use of their e-alert system. (DCist has a rundown of all the messages from the accident through the next morning.) Most subscribers weren’t told of the crash until over 90 minutes after the news broke both online and on television. Yet throughout the incident, Metro’s alerts only referred to “mechanical difficulties” even 19 hours later.

It’s a shameful use of social media, failing to disseminate such vital and critical information. At a time when the agency needs to have the best image possible, its failings only makes WMATA look that much more tarnished.

Especially when other issues come to light.

Initial reports from the Federal Transit Authority and the National Transportation Safety Board are indicating that the accident was caused by a combination of factors. The possible critical failure of the automated system, ineffective emergency brakes and other circumstances led up to Metro’s worst accident in the agency’s history. And the finger-pointing has begun landing solidly on Metro.

The NTSB strongly recommended in 1996 that Metro either retire the 1000-series or strengthen their frames to prevent the “telescoping effect” that reduces effective passenger safety spaces. The striking train’s lead car did precisely that, injuring many and taking the lives of several passengers on Monday. And the photos from Monday’s crash are eerily similar to the 2004 Woodley Park crash.

After the 2004 collision, the NTSB’s report indicated the older 1000-series cars needed to be upgraded with data recorders in all of its cars. WMATA did – but only in the newer cars, failing to put them in the 1000-series. Over 25% of the system’s fleet is made up of these older Rohrs cars and currently on a timeline to be phased out by 2014.

Finally, the NTSB recommended critical software revisions be made which would allow investigators in the future to determine what the operator’s actions were during the time of the crash. Because WMATA failed to do so, everything regarding Monday’s crash is reliant only on the struck train’s sensors and physical investigation of various parts of the wreckage. Such work cannot give a 100% answer as to the cause of the crash, forcing investigators to make educated guesses and conjecture.

Back in 2004, the Woodley Park crash prompted the following recommendation from the NTSB’s final report:

Either accelerate retirement of Rohr-built railcars, or if those railcars are not retired but instead rehabilitated, then the Rohr-built passenger railcars should incorporate a retrofit of crashworthiness collision protection that is comparable to the 6000-series railcars. (R-06-2)

Assess the adequacy of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s current organizational structure and ensure that it effectively identifies and addresses safety issues. (R-06-4)

Develop transit railcar design standards to provide adequate means for safe and rapid emergency responder entry and passenger evacuation. (R-06-5)

Develop minimum crashworthiness standards to prevent the telescoping of transit railcars in collisions and establish a timetable for removing equipment that cannot be modified to meet the new standards. (R-06-6)

Metro did not follow the NTSB’s recommendations with regards to R-06-2 and R-06-6. As such, it can be argued that R-06-5 was thus ignored. And by logical inference, R-06-4 was thus disregarded. WMATA at the time responded both in 1996 and in 2004 that it would be too expensive and disruptive to carry out. The NTSB does not have enforcement power, but went on record strongly against Metro’s decisions.

Interestingly, I found this in the NTSB’s response to the 2004 investigation:

During the investigation of the January 6, 1996, accident at the Shady Grove station, the Safety Board identified employee concerns about WMATA’s organizational structure, specifically, a perceived lack of communication and a sense of information isolation. These concerns were addressed by a WMATA safety review committee, which recommended that WMATA change its organizational structure to have the safety department report directly to the general manager (GM). This recommendation was subsequently adopted and implemented, and WMATA’s safety department began reporting directly to the GM.

WMATA’s organizational structure was not an issue in the November 3, 2004, accident at the Woodley Park station. However, following the 2004 accident, WMATA restructured its organization again, reverting back to the safety department having a disconnected responsibility and accountability reporting chain. In effect, this restructuring maneuver rescinded the direct reporting link between the safety department and the GM that had been established as result of the Shady Grove accident. In a letter to WMATA, dated March 31, 2005, the Tri-State Oversight Committee expressed concern about the transit authority’s reorganization, which eliminated the safety department’s direct access to the GM. This postaccident reorganization could recreate the systemic information isolation that existed within WMATA prior to the Shady Grove accident, which in turn could inhibit serious safety problems from being identified or adequately addressed.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) apparently believes that an effective management structure is important, and it has established that a transit system must include an organizational chart in its system safety plan along with a description of how the safety function is integrated into the rest of the transit organization. Still, the Safety Board is concerned that the more distant reporting relationship between WMATA’s safety department and the GM could inhibit serious safety problems from being identified or adequately addressed.

Is it possible that WMATA’s reorganization back in 2005 indirectly contributed to the issue? How much of the NTSB’s recommendations from both the ’96 and ’04 incidents did Catoe really know about, and was he really aware of the extent of safety issues that existed? Could it be possible that if WMATA had NOT reorganized again, cutting off the Safety Board’s direct access to the GM, that steps to fix these 1000-series cars would’ve been in progress?

Metro’s excuse in the coming days may no doubt be the citing of chronic budget shortfalls and lack of long-term funding. Yes, Metro has no dedicated source of funding unlike other city transit agencies in the country. And yes, both VA and MD need to step up and allot more funding to the system. That’s an issue that’s been around for years.

But it’s also an excuse that’s wearing thinner every time Catoe and WMATA trot it out. Already, Congress is stepping up to hedge that excuse off at the pass – House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer went on the record yesterday cautioning against suggesting that lack of federal money was to blame for the crash. Hoyer represents a Maryland district and is one of the system’s strongest advocates for federal funding of WMATA. “I want to wait because before jumping to the conclusion that this was ‘due to’ a lack of money,” he told reporters. “We don’t know if it was human error, computer error, equipment error, failure. We do know it was tragic.”

DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton was a bit more emphatic in her response to the tragedy. “With Metro cars crowded with regional residents and dominated by federal employees, Congress had the ultimate wake-up call.” She’s chairwoman of one of the transportation and infrastructure subcommittees and feels that WMATA needs to begin drastic measures to fix the issue. “Our work to authorize $1.5 billion for Metro came after compelling testimony that the maintenance problems of the system have fallen into the danger zone,” she said. “The only appropriate response is to begin to eliminate the crash-unworthy cars with this year’s appropriations.”

Hoyer has indicated that Congress might consider giving Metro more money if the lack of funding is indeed a “contributing factor” to Monday’s collision. Virginia, Maryland and District officials will be meeting with Metro after the Fourth of July holiday to discuss the accident and the investigation’s findings.

But is this reactionary from emotion? Is the right answer here to pour more money into Metro? For WMATA to drop everything and immediately fix the 1000-series? Or retire them immediately and buy newer cars? Either way, it’s a completely drastic measure. The 1000-series cars comprise of over a quarter of Metro’s total fleet. Taking them out of circulation, even for repairs, would eliminate much-needed passenger capacity. (Say goodbye to 8 car trains, for example.) It would cripple the system at a time when transit use is at an all-time high. And replacement cars could take between three and five years to arrive.

And where will the money come from, if Congress doesn’t fork over more – or if it’s not enough? Metro fares are already considered high; even with a modest increase set to come in the next year has been met with a large amount of public dislike. Metro’s fiscal issues have been chronic, even when federal and state funding is taken out of the equation. Would the stimulus money be re-apportioned for this, killing other much-needed improvements?

These are all serious questions that the agency MUST answer, and soon. And it’s a delicate situation, since Metro is now looking more and more like the bad guy in all of this. Failing to follow through with NTSB and FTA recommendations, regardless of how ‘right’ their reasoning was at the time, is painting WMATA in the worst possible light. Coupled with poor communications – both with first responders, with itself and with the public, it’s just looking worse and worse for the agency. There needs to be changes, and they need to start yesterday.

Having lived in the DC area for ten years, Ben still loves to wander the city with his wife, shooting lots of photos and exploring all the latest exhibits and galleries. A certified hockey fanatic, he spends some time debating the Washington Capitals club with friends – but everyone knows of his three decade love affair with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

A professional writer, gamer, photographer, and Lego enthusiast, Ben remains captivated by DC and doesn’t plan on leaving any time soon.

Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Flickr 

4 thoughts on “Talkin’ Transit: Hard Questions

  1. How about they postpone the Silver line and use money from that to do the work that’s needed to fix the system?

  2. The Silver line is already under construction, and the first section isn’t scheduled to be done until 2013 or 2014, so all that money is spread across all those years.

    Besides, like Ben said, money isn’t the only issue, if they pulled all those trains out to update them there would be serious issues in availability.

  3. Pingback: Talkin’ Transit: In the Dark » We Love DC

  4. Pingback: Talkin’ Transit: Mish-Mash Morning » We Love DC