Safety, budget woes threaten to consume Metro

An examination of the nation's second largest rail transit system comes at a time when Metro tries to weather an unprecedented season of danger and dismay.
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 21, 2010

Washington's Metro system, once a national model for urban transit systems, has deteriorated so badly that the National Transportation Safety Board plans to use a hearing this week into the June 22 crash that killed nine people and injured 80 as a case study for the adequacy of state and federal oversight at subways across the country.

The most sobering manifestation of Metro's decline is a series of fatal accidents over the past seven months. Since the crash on the Red Line, four workers have been killed on the tracks and a subcontractor was electrocuted while working at a bus garage.

Metro, which opened in 1976, has earned an embarrassing distinction.

"No one can recall another time when the NTSB has had four open investigations involving a single transit system," NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said. "When we see numerous accidents in a relatively short period of time, we want to determine what, if any, common elements there are that may need to be addressed."

The NTSB isn't expected to issue a formal finding as to the cause of the June crash -- officials say it will be months before they do that -- but when it does, a new general manager will be responsible for implementing the recommendations and helping Metro's board of directors find the money to pay for any equipment changes that are needed; changing the agency's safety culture; reversing a recent decline in ridership; and erasing historic budget deficits. General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. plans to retire April 2, and officials expect the search for a replacement to last most of the year.

During the three-day hearing, Metro's top managers and engineers, including Catoe, and the members of the committee responsible for overseeing safety at the agency will deliver sworn testimony about the accident and Metro's operations. Officials from other transportation agencies will testify about their operations, and the NTSB will release a mountain of documents.

All of the uncertainty makes people who ride Metro increasingly jittery about using the system.

Whitney Distaso of Arlington County worries when her husband heads out the door for his Metrorail commute. She panicked Feb. 12 when a train with more than 340 passengers aboard ended up on the wrong track and was derailed by safety equipment to prevent a possible collision.

"For about 10 minutes I couldn't reach him," she said. "All this fear just happened."

A problem in culture

Delays, overcrowding and chronically broken escalators are daily realities for commuters who use the nation's second-busiest rail system. Metro is reeling from a safety crisis, a lack of money and the loss of talent. The lack of funding, however, pervades everything.

A quarter of Metro's fleet of about 1,300 rail cars have been in operation for more than three decades -- and another quarter more than 20 years old. Long stretches of track in the 106-mile system need repair, part of a massive $11 billion list of capital upgrades required over the next decade.

Yet even as the system has aged, the number of rail trips has grown from about 150 million taken per year in the 1990s to nearly 223 million last year, according to Metro data.

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