Years of trouble plaguing Washington, DC’s WMATA reached another crescendo earlier this week when one person died following a smoke incident aboard a yellow line train. Carol Glover succumbed to smoke inhalation after rescuers took over 40 minutes to reach a train stranded in the tunnel only a few hundred feet from L’Enfant Plaza, and over 80 other passengers were hospitalized. For an agency plagued with operations issues, safety concerns and very tight finances, it was yet another reminder of the WMATA’s precarious position.
According to preliminary reports out of DC and the NTSB, the incident involved an electrical malfunction inside the tunnel, and while firefighters responded, according to DC’s mayor, “within the time frames that are customary,” they waited to enter the tunnel. The delay proved deadly for Glover, and footage from the incident shows a dark and disabled train filled with smoke. It was a tragedy that creates its own bad press.
In the aftermath, coverage has focused on both short-term perceptions surrounding the WMATA and the long-term need to emphasize culture. Here’s Aaron Wiener on the former:
In an informal Washington Post poll yesterday, nearly half of respondents said they would reconsider how often they ride Metro. Variants of “I’m done with Metro” proliferated on Twitter. It’s a sensible enough position. Metro has a reputation for shoddy service and a history of not learning from its mistakes, including with this incident, apparently caused by an “electrical arcing event” of the sort that has routinely plagued the system of late. Why should we reward such a poorly run enterprise with our business, or place our lives in the hands of a system we can’t trust?
Understandable though it may be, this is exactly the wrong way to respond to the latest tragedy. If we really want to fix what’s broken with Metro, we should start riding it more, not less…
The fact is, if we want Metro to work better, we have to ride it more. Nearly 60 percent of Metro’s daily operational costs are funded by fares and other revenue. And that revenue is threatened. Ridership dropped slightly during the recession, then suddenly plummeted in the past two years, down to 2005 levels. There are a number of factors—more people are telecommuting or getting to work by bike or bus—but the effect is clear. Fewer riders means bigger fare hikes to cover costs, which in turn will likely mean fewer riders. It’s a vicious cycle we don’t want to get caught up in.
As Wiener explores, for some reason, ridership on the Metro has cratered over the past few years, and it’s now at 2005 levels. The WMATA is facing a multi-billion-dollar budget gap that makes the MTA’s fiscal difficulties look like pennies, and it can’t drum up consistent support for the politically schizophrenic Maryland and Virginia suburbs. It’s the MTA’s worst case scenario writ small.
Meanwhile, other commentators were quick to point out how much safer transit is than driving. That’s of no consolation to Ms. Glover’s family, but even as passengers grow weary of transit after high-profile incidents, these incidents gain headlines precisely because they are rare. Now, it’s easy to make the case that fatalities on rail systems are generally 100% unavoidable. This week’s wasn’t even caused by the rolling stock that the NTSB hates; it was electrical. But transit remains very safe:
In 39 years of service, the total number of passengers killed while riding on Metro rail cars is 12. Now compare that to the fatalities in cars, trucks and motorcycles in a single year — 145 deaths in 2013, in the District and the suburban counties that Metro serves…
A new, peer-reviewed academic study published in the Journal of Public Transportation casts light on the first point. It reports that the rate of passenger fatalities in cars and light trucks is 30 times as high as for travel by subway or light rail. It was based on data in the United States from 2000 to 2009.
Even with these numbers, without the culture of safety, passengers are not comforted by statistics. Metro needs to realize a new culture without enough fiscal or political support. Here, in New York, the MTA is working to do something similar, but they don’t have nearly the same track record of mistakes to overcome. If we aren’t careful, though, DC serves as a lesson. It’s New York’s dystopian transit future if no one takes care of the system.