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2009 Transportation Bill

Understanding Washington’s Metro Crash

12:43 PM PDT on July 15, 2009

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.

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