Common Sense at Metro

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

METRO OFFICIALS insist that their decision, after last June's fatal accident, to "sandwich" older subway cars -- repositioning them into the middle of six- and eight-car trains, buffered by newer, more resilient cars -- was prompted not (or not only) by public relations but by safety logic. Although they had no specific engineering studies proving the older cars would be less vulnerable when bracketed by newer cars, officials said modeling studies of crashworthiness suggested they would be. They added that it was plain common sense.

Fair enough, you might say. If the move served both to reassure passengers that Metrorail is safe and conceivably provide an extra measure of safety, then perhaps it was worth the money -- Metro hasn't said how much -- that was spent to rearrange the trains. No harm, no foul, right?

Possibly. But there are a couple of aspects to this episode that leave us discomfited.

One is the reminder that the older, 1000 series cars, in service since the 1970s, are nearing the end of their lifespans, but Metro is too broke to replace them before it is forced to do so. The nine people who died in the June 22 accident at Fort Totten, including the operator of the striking train, were on a 1000 series car, one of 290 in Metro's fleet of more than 1,100 cars.

In 2004, the National Transportation Safety Board urged that the 1000 series cars be retired or structurally reinforced after a number of them crumpled in an accident at Woodley Park. But Metro, a perennial mendicant with no dependable dedicated, long-term source of capital funding, could hardly afford to scrap or completely rebuild the older cars. At a replacement cost of $3 million each, substituting newer models for all of the 1000 series cars in service will cost around $870 million. Metro has committed to replace them within five years, but finding the money to pay for it remains a challenge.

That underscores the importance of legislation in Congress to provide a federal match for annual contributions of $150 million from Metro's three jurisdictions -- the District, Virginia and Maryland. The localities have committed to their shares for the next decade, and bills have passed both houses of Congress to match their contributions. But Metro is still awaiting final passage of the first year's appropriation; without it, the transit agency will continue to struggle to update its aging infrastructure, including the rail cars.

Another worry is the accumulating evidence of Metro's disregard for the Tri-State Oversight Committee, the body created in 1997 by the District, Virginia and Maryland to ensure that Metro adheres to safety standards. The committee, a toothless regulator that lacks funding, offices and staff, asked Metro for details about its decision to reconfigure its trains to "sandwich" the 1000 series cars after the June accident. It got no response.

This sort of brushoff has been par for the course for Metro, which operates from the increasingly dubious assumption that it can regulate itself. In fact, Metro, which operates the nation's second-busiest subway system, has been so plagued recently by mishaps, catastrophes, near-catastrophes, deaths and injuries that it has been operating in a virtually constant crisis mode for months. The agency needs more oversight -- not only to reassure the commuting public but also as a second set of institutional eyes on what has become a worryingly accident-prone system. That's just common sense.

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