On a Monday afternoon five years ago, as rush hour was reaching its peak, a Red Line train betrayed by flawed technology and negligent bureaucracy smashed into a train stopped in front of it near the Fort Totten station in Northeast Washington.
Nine people died, 80 were injured, and our region realized beyond doubt that we’d allowed our once-pristine Metro rail system to start rotting away.
It’s gratifying to report today that the wake-up call yielded genuine progress. The alarms sounded by the 2009 incident, whose anniversary is Sunday, led to a burst of overdue reforms on safety, modernization and governance.
But despite the advances, Metro continues to suffer from numerous, serious shortcomings. Riders are all too aware of the system’s struggles with delays, crowded trains and out-of-commission escalators.
The decay had burrowed so deep before 2009 that it will still take years of inside efforts and outside pressure to restore the system to anything close to the sparkle and efficiency of its inaugural years in the 1970s.
As we assess Metro five years after the worst accident in its history, it’s vital not to let the successes lull us into forgetting the hard tasks outstanding.
“There’s more work to be done — I’m not sitting here saying things are hunky-dory,” Metro General Manager Richard Sarles told me in an interview Thursday. “This is always a work in progress.”
Let’s look at the bright side first. In response to the Red Line crash, Metro upgraded equipment and overhauled its board of directors. Above all, it focused on improving safety.
In an eye-opening sign that things have changed, Metro received a gold award for safety Tuesday at a conference in Montreal of the American Public Transit Association.
“They have gone from worst to first among their peers,” Deborah Hersman, president of the National Safety Council, told the attendees. “This is a significant accomplishment.”
Hersman’s views are especially relevant. She had relentlessly criticized Metro as head of the National Transportation Safety Board during its investigation of the Fort Totten crash.
A key to the progress was a thorough housecleaning of the board of directors. Some elected officials on the board had fallen into the bad habit of micromanaging Metro staff on behalf of narrow political interest.
“The biggest impact was a whole bunch of new board members who put a greater focus on [Metro] and its needs in regional transportation rather than on anything parochial,” board member Mort Downey said.
On the negative side of the ledger, unexpected long waits for trains are all too common, especially at night and on weekends. Broken air conditioning results in suffocatingly hot cars.
Metro points to data showing gradual improvements, such as a modest rise in the percentage of “on-time” trains. But the metrics have loopholes. Outside of rush hour, for instance, a train that’s supposed to show up within 12 minutes is considered “on time” if it appears within 18.
It’s also “on time” even if it’s too crowded to enter.
“There’s a difference between how it’s reported and how it’s perceived,” said Michael Perkins, who writes about Metro for the blog Greater Greater Washington.
“Metro reports that they put a train in a station. Great. Did they put a train in a station that you can actually get on? I don’t know,” Perkins said.
Then there are less visible but equally worrisome management and funding problems. A sharply critical audit in March found myriad examples of poor handling of federal dollars.
Looking ahead, it isn’t clear where the region will find the money needed to expand the system to handle growth in demand.
Sarles expressed cautious optimism that the District, Maryland and Virginia would each ante up the extra $50 million a year over five years that he says is necessary for the first phase of expansion.
That would pay for increasing capacity by using eight-car trains, instead of shorter ones, on all routes.
But the next phase of expansion would cost considerably more. It would add two expensive tunnels, one beneath downtown streets and another across the Potomac.
Plus there’s a real risk that the federal government, struggling with a large deficit and a tea party faction in Congress, will reduce its contributions.
Metro and the region deserve credit for responding well to the Fort Totten tragedy. But the task is not over.
Even as Hersman praised Metro for its safety honor, she reminded the conference that “excellence requires even award winners to double down.”
For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.