Understanding Washington’s Metro Crash

redline.jpgThe scene of the June 22 Washington D.C. Metro crash. Photo: AP
The House of Representatives subcommittee on the Federal Workforce, Postal Service, and the District of Columbia convened yesterday afternoon to hear testimony related to the tragic Washington Metro accident of June 22.

The proceedings got off to an appropriately somber start, as California Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) used his opening statement to explain that this spring's stimulus package contained billions for a Mag-Lev rail line from Orange County to Las Vegas.

This, of course, is completely false, and the quip was entirely unrelated to the rest of his remarks. I'm sure Issa's constituents will be glad to know that he's taking transportation issues seriously.

Testimony was heard from a number of experts, and from Patrick Tuite, a rider on one of the trains in the collision, who provided a riveting account of the accident. But not much in the way of new information emerged.

The facts of the incident remain as previously understood. A recently replaced portion of track circuitry intended to detect the presence of trains on the tracks and facilitate the automatic train control system malfunctioned intermittently after installation, including around the time of the accident. The operator of the striking train attempted to engage the brakes before impact, but to no avail.

The National Transportation Safety Board continues to investigate the matter and may not have a final report on it for some time. In the meantime, trains on the Metro system continue to operate in manual mode, and on reduced speeds and a single track at the site of the accident (creating major headaches for riders on the system, which is a critical piece of metropolitan infrastructure).

Three broad themes emerged in testimony. The first concerned funding problems, at Metro specifically and for transit generally. Former congressman Tom Davis spoke at length about the funding difficulties at Metro, which have contributed to a $6 billion capital needs shortfall (in his estimation; Metro's John Catoe noted that identified needs run to over $11 billion at this time).

Metro's idiosyncrasies greatly complicate its funding. Unlike any other transit system in the country, there is no dedicated revenue source; all appropriations are ad hoc. This is particularly problematic as the system stretches across two states and the District of Columbia.

To make matters worse, Metro is overseen by the subcommittee on the District of Columbia rather than through the transportation committee. Federal appropriations for the system must travel a different route than money directed toward every other system in the country.

In an effort to overcome some of these difficulties, Congress has passed a law matching $1.5 billion in revenue from newly established local dedicated funding streams, to the tune of $150 million a year for 10 years. That's an improvement, but it obviously only begins to close the system's capital needs gap.

And so other testifying experts, most notably American Public Transportation Association president William Millar, argued forcefully for passage of a new transportation funding act, which would include adequate resources for the nation's transit systems. Unfortunately, Mr Millar may have to wait until 2011.

The second broad theme was the safety record of Metro specifically and transit generally relative to competing modes of transportation. Millar noted that a transit journey is roughly 20 times safer than an equivalent automobile trip.

Passenger fatalities in the June 22 accident were the system's first in over 20 years. Transit accidents make news because they're large and rare, but annual deaths in automobiles are several orders of magnitude higher than in rail systems.

And finally, there was extensive discussion of rail safety procedures generally. Oversight of safety systems was a hot topic, as was replacement of equipment -- particularly relevant in this case given the track failure, but also the age and poor crash performance of the forward car in the striking train.

An interesting note on this score came from Brian Bilbray (R-CA) who argued that the move toward increased automation of train systems might be counterproductive.

In particular, he suggested that using automatic train controls with manual back-up was unhelpful, as operators tend to tune out while trains are in automatic mode. Rather, a system of manual operation with automated back-up might improve safety.

Amusingly, he compared the operating procedures in transit vehicles to those in the B-2 bomber. Of course, if transit systems had the budget per vehicle of the B-2 program, the issue of aging capital equipment might not have arisen in the first place.

In all, it seems the Metro crash will lead to some valuable changes in operating procedures, and it has already resulted in the speedy direction of promised funds to the system. But the accident mainly provides an opportunity to reflect on how safe transit systems actually are, and how the nation's inability to fund those systems adequately -- and build new ones -- is an unfortunate and significant policy failure.