First As Tragedy, Again As Tragedy, Always As Tragedy

I have a letter lying around that I wrote several years ago. It’s a letter to the Washington Post, or more broadly, any outlet that will publish it. The sad part is that for the past few years, all that’s been required is to append the latest incident to the bottom of it and resubmit it, and the thrust remains just as relevant as it had before. After yesterday’s horrible incident in which one woman died and 80 passengers hospitalized due to smoke inhalation near L’Enfant Plaza, it’s worth a slight update. Suffice it to say that little has changed, or shows serious signs of changing anytime soon.

[WMATA General Manager] Richard Sarles again continues to obfuscate and ignore the larger, systemic problems of WMATA. He claims that WMATA has “implemented recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board,” when one of their core recommendations – the retirement of the 1000-series cars susceptible to catastrophic “accordioning” in a collision – has still not yet been achieved, more than three and a half years after the fatal Red Line crash. Sarles asserts that WMATA is “adding services, including more peak-period trains [two] summer[s ago].” In fact, no new trains have been added – formerly Blue trains are now diverted over the Fenwick Bridge as Yellow Line trains, which does increase the number of trains for certain portions of the systems, but vastly decreases it in others.

Perhaps Mr. Sarles’ most egregious claim is that “Metro has met or exceeded nine of 11 performance metrics.” I would only ask Mr. Sarles: what metrics on earth are you using? As a daily commuter who lives in DC, owns no car, and relies on Metro for all of my transit needs, system performance has reached critical, unacceptable levels. Headways of 20 minutes or more; overcrowded trains, few of which run full eight-car lengths; endemic “hot cars,” frequent train breakdowns and offloads; delays owing to “track” and “switch” issues (despite the highly-touted MetroForward program) – these have gotten noticeably worse over the past year. And this doesn’t even take into account cramped stations, rude station managers and employees, and all the mundane issues that go into making Metro what it has unfortunately become.

Despite all his talk of a more responsive WMATA that puts customers first, Sarles has yet to make public appearances himself. WMATA holds nothing even close to the open town halls or question-and-answer sessions that many other agencies, such as New Jersey Transit, PATH, the New York MTA, and Boston’s MBTA do to address rider concerns and complaints. To the public, WMATA is a silent monolith, a being that simply exists and therefore is. For the average rider, there is literally nothing to be done but grin and bear it.

The worst part of all this is that, as Douglas Duncan (“What if Metro Put Riders First?”) hinted at, WMATA is answerable to no one. The relationship between the GM and the Board is accommodating at best, and as all the Board and GM positions are appointed, the public has little say in the governance of the agency. The Rider’s Advisory Council, rather than serving as a conduit for issues raised by riders, has instead become captive to the board’s interests, with members of the RAC arriving at and departing from meetings by car and taxi. And as a purely advisory concession to public opinion, it has no actual power of its own. Until this leadership trio has been replaced or repaired – the RAC’s powerlessness, Sarles, and the WMATA Board as is currently composed – there will be little means of improving WMATA from the ground up.

Yes, Metro has been neglected and underfunded for years, and it’s high time we had a true massive capital investment. Even bolder thinking is required – power systems need upgrading to handle eight-car trains on every line, massive investments in rolling stock are required to not just retire the 1000-series but to provide headways of ten minutes or less on every line at every time, and the separated Blue Line – headlined by an additional crossing of the Potomac – needs to be planned for and programmed starting immediately. But Richard Sarles is absolutely not the man to oversee it as long as he continues to ignore serious problems throughout the system and the complaints of the very riders who use the system. WMATA does not exist as an agency that moves trains; it is an agency that moves people – and until its leadership gets back to this fundamental mission, service will not improve.

To this, I sadly have to add: Without new leadership, safety will continue to take second fiddle to something else. But what is that something? One of WMATA’s problems is its lack of institutional priorities. If one could call anything a priority, it would be the rebuilding program that’s rendered the rail system unusable on weekends while doing little to improve the experience during the week. But it most certainly is not safety. I had hoped that we could muddle through the rest of Sarles’ tenure, but instead a woman is now dead due to WMATA’s incompetence, and Richard Sarles will leave just as he came in – overshadowed by the grim specter of death.

People may remember the Green Line train trapped under the Anacostia two years ago, from which passengers “self-evacuated” due to a total lack of clarity or instruction from WMATA personnel. Naturally, rather than actually reform the emergency communications process as promised, WMATA instead moved to criminalize the idea that maybe it’s safer to leave an unsafe train than to remain aboard, leading to yesterday’s death when riders stayed – at the driver’s urging – aboard a smoke-filled train for 40 minutes while waiting for rescue personnel to arrive. Again, a woman is dead because of this utter failure to change.

With the shortlist for Sarles’s successor down to two – a former DC city administrator and the current head of WMATA’s rail operations(!) – it’s worth asking if this is a culture truly worth promoting from within, or indeed, whether the appointment of a new general manager will do much of anything to sort out an enterprise that seems thoroughly incapable of reform from top to bottom. People thought Sarles could be a savior when he replaced John Catoe after the fatal 2009 crash – instead, as he departs this Friday (for his timely but unrelated retirement), the New Guy will be faced with identical challenges plaguing this transit agency.

Whereas when I first wrote that letter I thought that the blame certainly went all the way to the top, it’s now clear that yesterday’s tragedy was virtually inevitable, regardless of whether it happened on Sarles’s watch or someone else’s (not that this excuses him from accountability, but with his departure imminent, it matters less for the moment). The rot lies throughout all of WMATA, which refuses to treat small issues with any seriousness, and which has no rational approach to failure mode analysis. It is a “rogue empire,” “dysfunctional from the inside out.” And while it should not be said that I’m not a strong proponent of increasing transit funding in basically every way, it’s clear that there is much more going on at WMATA than simple budgetary shortfalls.

Put bluntly, the system is unsafe. And yet I’ll keep riding it. For me, it’s my only option. A safe, efficient, rapid transit service should not be too much to ask for in a modern American capital in the 21st century. And yet…

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