Home Public Transit Policy The importance of investing in mass transit

The importance of investing in mass transit

by Benjamin Kabak

In cities around the country, mass transit ridership is on the climb. In New York, around 5.2 million per day ride the subways around the city. In Washington, D.C., site of this week’s fatal train collision, daily ridership for the Metro is around 730,000, an all-time high for the WMATA.

Meanwhile, investments are down, and financial crises for transit authorities are on the rise. From Chicago to New York, Boston to Washington, transit agencies are looking for ways to cut costs and cut services while raising fares in order to bridge budget gaps. Local and state municipalities are scaling back investment levels, and federal contributions, while higher than they’ve been in the past, can’t begin to overcome the funding abyss these transit authorities face.

For New York, the funding decisions — what to cut, what not to cut, how to invest — have been seemingly easy and transparent. The MTA will cut the frequency of train service as a last resort. They will close stations as a last resort. They will instead turn to fare box revenue and somewhat superfluous services that make the system nicer. Station cleaning staff will be reduced; station agents will be eliminated through attrition.

What the MTA has not been willing to cut are its modernization and security measures. By developing two separate budgets with two separate revenue streams — one for capital, one for operations — the authority can continue to invest in new rails, new signals, new stations and new train cars while the day-to-day operations of the system may be scaled back. Safety, security and the comforts of getting from Point A to B are paramount, and if straphangers have to wait a few minutes more or suffer through more crowded trains until the economy improves, so be it.

Not every system has the same structure in place. ,As we head south to the site of this week’s horrific and deadly train crash on the D.C. Metro’s red line, we come to another overtaxed system. As D.C. and federal transit officials investigate the cause of a high-speed rear end collision that left nine people dead and nearly 80 more wounded, they are finding that a lack of investment may be one of the culprits. Ian Urbina reports:

[National Transportation Safety Board member Debbie] Hersman said the federal safety board had recommended that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which runs the transit system, “either retrofit those cars or phase them out of the fleet.”

“They have not been able to do that, and our recommendation was not addressed,” Ms. Hersman said. She called the transit authority’s response to the recommendations “unacceptable.”

The authority’s general manager, John B. Catoe Jr., said the transit system had been waiting to receive proposals “over the next month or so” to replace the old cars. The new trains were still years away from being added, he said.

Why didn’t the WMATA heed the government’s safety warnings? Because, as Doug Feaver writes in the Washington Post, they didn’t have the money. They have old cars that haven’t been retrofitted because politicians have shoved mass transit to the side. As Feavers, transit is far safer than driving and is becoming an increasingly popular mode of transit. We as a nation should be investing in it.

In New York, the MTA on Tuesday took great pains to ensure costumers of the safety of its fleet. The MTA does not use any of the types of cars damaged in Monday’s accident, and as officials explained, the subway’s fixed-block signal system has better crash-prevention measures in please than the new WMATA system does.

Nationwide, there have been few bad transit accidents over the last few years. When they happen, they earn top headlines because they are so rare, and we as a public consider trains infallible. When cars age, when systems aren’t upgraded, they break down and become dangerous. With so many people recognizing the value of transit, it’s time to invest in both our safety and our future.

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Scott E June 24, 2009 - 8:41 am

It’s interesting that NYC Transit cites its older “fixed-block” signal system as a safety benefit over the new CBTC that they’re trying to roll out (and Metro uses). One thing you’ll notice on the NYC system is that, on the track near each signal, is a yellow “trip switch” that flips up when the signal is red, and lowers when it turns green. If a train passes over the trip in the up (red-signal) position, the emergency brakes are engaged. Of course, you can only do this with a fixed-block system. When the blocks “move” based on actual train positions in a computerized system, you can’t do that.

Having said that, the more automated you make the trains (either with these “emergency-overrides” or true auto-pilot systems), the more complacent the operators may become. They are no longer, to borrow a hockey metaphor, “the last line of defense.”

I’m making no judgment here on the merits or faults of CBTC vs. fixed-block signaling, nor am I trying to figure out who’s at fault in DC.

Back to the original post, this is a great article in support of separate capital and operational budgets. It certainly puts things in a perspective that I hadn’t really thought of before.

Rob June 24, 2009 - 10:15 am

I understand you are a rising 2L Benjamin. As such, you will have an opportunity to take Tax Law soon. Here is an interesting take on a possible culprit in the WMATA crash.


It fits with your fiscal/economic analysis of this terrible tragedy.

R2 June 24, 2009 - 3:36 pm

Keep the good work, Ben.

It is really is too bad we wait until things break, or worse, lives are lost, before substantive change occurs. Let’s hope that trend stops.

Ariel June 24, 2009 - 4:01 pm

Like the levees breaking in New Orleans, or the bridge collapsing in Minneapolis, this is another example of how the federal government has let our infrastructure crumble to dangerous levels.

Hopefully the Obama administration can pass a second, more well-planned stimulus package that sends money directly to the mayors, so that they can address hard-pressing infrastructure problems such as this one.

Anon June 24, 2009 - 6:09 pm

Stringfellow, R., Rancatore, R., Llana, P., Mayville, R., “Analysis of Colliding Vehicle Interactions for the Passenger Rail Train-to-Train Impact Test,” American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Paper No. RTD2004-66037, April 2004.

More at:

Ed June 24, 2009 - 9:50 pm

I agree with prioritizing safety.

However, I favor more radical triage. Just eliminate a line completely. Maybe keep the stations open so the additional homeless people have another place to sleep but no longer bother keeping it operational. Use the savings to keep the other lines at a higher level of service.

I realize this is probably completely delusional. Its fun to speculate on which line should get the ax if they actually did this. The G? The trains out to the Rockaways? Why should the Rockaways be connected by subway to the rest of the city and not Staten Island. Howe about the L? See how all the new condo owners in Williamsburg like being stranded.

paulb June 25, 2009 - 9:43 am

Making trains more crash resistant, a phrase I’ve seen in stories about the accident. Doesn’t that mean making the cars heavier? I’ve read this has been one of the big problems for Acela–high speed trains made too heavy by FRA collision requirements. Heavier cars means more electricity used, more wear and tear on the wheels and rails.

And I used to envy DC the Metro. Well, I still do.

R2 June 25, 2009 - 12:47 pm

I recall Larry Littlefield (I think) over at Streetsblog raising this point w/ regard to FRA. Here in the states we tend to emphasize crash-worthiness whereas the Europeans keep their trains lighter and tend to focus on signal technologies to prevent accidents in the first place.

Certainly a debate worth having.

Alon Levy June 25, 2009 - 4:47 pm

Heavier trains aren’t actually crash-worthier – Caltrain did tests, and found that except at slow speeds, light trains perform better in collisions.

Gary June 25, 2009 - 2:26 pm

So if NYCT uses fixed block systems, why did they buy CBTC on the L line and currently have an RFP out to install CBTC on the 7 line, to include the Javits extension as well?

Almost all agencies are going to either CBTC or PTC, for NYCT to thump their chest and say otherwise is a flatout lie. If it wasn’t for the TWU (Who I hate), we’d have one person trains, and that person would be just like WMATA – Open and close the doors and deal with emergencies. Don’t thank NYCT, thank the TWU

Alon Levy June 25, 2009 - 4:49 pm

In the Greater DC region, about 1,000 people die every year of car accidents. Having only 9 people die per year is an amazing achievement by auto standards. It’s a bad result compared to other transit systems, like New York’s, which have zero fatalities for many years in a row, but that just illustrates that transit is very safe.

Amitabha Mukhopadhyay June 26, 2009 - 12:27 am

Mass transit systems could be made 100%safe using proper technology. If there is on board computer in the driver’s cabin and proper sensors placed on the line that can send signals to the driver for a couple of miles ahead continuously.If there is any train within two miles say the load on the track would alert the driver and the autopilot automatically and the train would stop.
Our main problem is that we always try to remain comfortable in an old technology systems and reluctant to innovate.
For a glimpse into the world of future mass transit systems please visit the website http://www.eloquentbooks.com/M.....080AD.html

anonymouse June 27, 2009 - 12:58 am

Guess what: Washington Metro had exactly such a system. It failed to detect the train like it was supposed to. My guess would be either some component failed and nobody noticed, or somebody made some unauthorized modifications, or maybe the design was flawed to begin with and nobody noticed until a train stopped at the exact wrong spot.


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