A Broken Metro: Track Problems Are Cause for Concern

Thursday, July 23, 2009

METRO'S BOSSES tried to characterize the latest news of safety problems as sensationalist, but the facts -- as reported Wednesday by The Post's Lena H. Sun and Lyndsey Layton -- were hardly comforting to an already rattled ridership. The train control system is breaking down across the rail network, suggesting that a technological failure suspected to be at the heart of last month's fatal crash might be widespread, according to agency documents obtained by The Post. This doesn't mean that Metrorail is too dangerous to ride, but the failure of officials to fully disclose the extent of the problems and how they have been addressing them is inexcusable.

So far, records show that at least a half-dozen track circuits on four of the transit system's five lines have failed to properly detect the presence of trains in recent weeks. The safe operation of a transit system requires that the location of trains be known at all times. Metro rail chief Dave Kubicek said that officials do not know what is causing the problems. Officials are, at least, moving toward working with a company to back up the train control system. But for now, when they disable a track circuit, trains are required to proceed one at a time through the affected section of track at a maximum speed of 15 mph, invisible to controllers at Metro's downtown operations center. That leaves the safe operation of the train entirely in the hands of the operator. How many riders have had a clue that this has been going on?

Safety is a primary consideration for would-be riders, but reliability is a close second. If trips that usually take 21 minutes end up taking a half-hour to an hour, it's safe to assume that more than a few commuters will turn to their cars. If public confidence in the stewardship of the system -- including the provision of reliable information about technological problems, work underway and delays -- continues to wane, still more people will desert mass transit.

For too many years before the current management took over, Metro officials belittled the desperate need to replace equipment, especially rail cars. True, there has never been sufficient funding. Five years ago after a fatal accident, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended replacing and refitting rail cars, but Metro had no dedicated source of revenue to run bus or rail operations. As The Post's Doug Feaver noted in an op-ed in June, Metro still has 293 of those cars and projected that it would cost $811 million and take three years to replace them.

Until Congress and Metro's regional partners deliver on the reliable funding system they have promised, the true bills of aging will not be covered. And without more oversight of transit leadership, information policies and maintenance and safety standards, public confidence in Metro will continue to suffer.

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