GIVEN METRO'S disturbing string of mechanical failures and poor policy decisions -- all recited at a lively "town hall" meeting Tuesday night -- it is easy to conclude that the agency's failure to follow a National Transportation Safety Board recommendation nearly eight years ago to strengthen its rail-car structures showed blatant disregard for safety, dramatically demonstrated in the train wreck this month at the Woodley Park Station. After a 1996 crash at Shady Grove, in which a train operator was killed, the board said that Metro "should make the necessary modifications, such as incorporating underframe bracing or similar features, to improve the crashworthiness of cars in the current and/or future Metrorail fleet." But Metro was neither lax nor defiant in holding off. The transit agency hired Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. to analyze the recommendation; the consultants advised against retrofitting the fleet because the cars "would have to be completely disassembled, the structure would have to be reworked, and the associated costs would be prohibitive." At the time, Metro's pleas for more money for other rail-car maintenance were falling on deaf regional ears; to make matters worse, political pressures to continue expanding service were mounting.

Metro said then that it would design future rail cars to better withstand crashes. But financial constraints limited the ordering of new cars, and, as reported Saturday by The Post's Lyndsey Layton, many cars in today's fleet were built in the 1970s and are not scheduled for retirement until 2012, while still others, built in the 1980s, are being overhauled to extend their lives by 20 years. Only Metro's 192 newest cars were designed to withstand crashes without telescoping. Given the regular maintenance that is needed, are the local, state and federal governments prepared to ante up untold additional amounts to further overhaul the current fleet, or to triple their order for new cars and hope they can be manufactured in record time?

Two years ago Metro wrote again to the NTSB, stating that reinforcing the underframes of rail cars in use could cause more passenger injuries because it might transfer some of the force of a crash to the passengers instead of letting the blow be absorbed in the crumpling. We're not equipped to judge that. But we can note that the failure to step up the replacement and expansion of the fleet was not the fault of Metro's management. Richard A. White, Metro's chief executive, has been warning ever since he took office in 1996 that the system's physical health has been deteriorating. It is the absence of dedicated sources of revenue -- and the absence of regional leaders with the political courage to raise that essential money -- that continues to haunt the system.