Metro passengers worried about safety and maddened by chronic service disruptions might think they’re riding the nation’s worst subway. But they’re not.
The region’s rail transit system had an average or above-average performance in overall safety and reliability among the nine largest U.S. subways over the past eight years, according to a Washington Post analysis of federal transit data.
Metro had one of the lowest rates for passenger injuries from 2008 through 2015. Its reliability, despite having slipped recently, was not among the worst. It ranked smack in the middle — fifth out of nine — in collisions and fires.
It had the third-lowest rate of total mechanical failures from 2011 through 2014.
Chicago and Philadelphia had higher rates of passenger injuries, collisions and total mechanical failures than did Washington.
San Francisco ranked near the top for good reliability, whereas Boston was safest in terms of passenger injuries.
Even though Metro is not the worst system in the country, its reputation has suffered because of poor performance in two categories of critical importance: deaths of riders and the agency’s own workers.
A handful of fatal incidents, notably the 2009 Red Line crash that killed nine people, led Metro to have the second-worst average rate of fatalities for passengers and employees in the past eight years. Only Los Angeles had a higher rate of deaths among passengers, while Miami was worst for employees.
The fatalities revealed deep problems in Metro’s safety culture. They also have damaged the agency’s image so thoroughly that analysts who reviewed The Post’s results were not expecting the agency’s comparatively good record in other areas.
“What you would expect, given the nature and tenor of the conversation in Washington, is that they are the worst-performing, which they clearly are not,” said Robert Puentes, president of the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonprofit think tank.
The overall portrait that emerged of Metro was of an aged subway showing definite signs of wear and neglect but not an outlier among its peers, which all have similar issues.
Barbara Hermanson, chair of the Metro Riders’ Advisory Council, expressed concern about the high fatality rates but added, “It was good to see that in many other categories, we were in the middle of the pack, because we often hear our local people complain about how unreliable Metro has become.”
Still, she added that Metro’s public reputation has suffered because of the drop in dependability.
The Post’s analysis compared the largest U.S. subways, after adjusting for their different sizes, by 12 measures since 2008 or 2011, depending on the data. The underlying figures come from the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database, the only source of uniform statistics about U.S. subways’ performance.
In addition to Metro, the other systems studied were those in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Miami.
Industry experts cautioned that subways differ so much in age and their operating environments that the comparisons are difficult. Representatives of some subways also said that cities used different thresholds in deciding what to report.
But the transit agencies are legally required to follow uniform standards in providing the data to the FTA. Although the figures are not audited, industry experts said they were widely used and the only ones suited to the purpose. Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said the federal statistics were “probably the best” available.
One challenge in interpreting the data is that subway deaths are so rare that a small number of fatal incidents can dramatically shape the overall results.
That’s what has happened with Metro. It suffered 10 passenger fatalities since 2008: The 2009 Red Line crash accounted for eight passenger deaths in addition to one employee. By contrast, San Francisco, whose system is roughly the same size as Metro’s, had one passenger fatality during the time frame.
Metro also had more employee fatalities than did New York’s — six vs. four — even though the New York system is about 10 times larger. Five of the nine systems analyzed had no employee fatalities in the period.
In contrast, Metro tied with New York and Boston for the lowest rate of deaths among people waiting for a train or leaving a station. That category includes people killed in a crime or from falling onto tracks, but not suicides, which are counted separately.
Because of its poor record in passenger and employee fatalities, Metro has had more than its share of National Transportation Safety Board investigations, which attract considerable publicity.
This year, Metro also suffered the indignity of a federal takeover of its safety oversight. The FTA said concern over Metro’s weak safety culture, as well as the system’s statistical record, led to the move.
“It wasn’t just the numbers,” said Paul Kincaid, the FTA’s associate administrator for communications and congressional affairs. “We saw on the ground a clear and present need for an effective . . . safety oversight agency as quickly as possible.”
Wiedefeld declined to discuss how Metro compares with other systems, saying each faces unique challenges. But he acknowledged that Metro has serious problems.
“My goal is just to focus on getting better and not to debate whether we fit in the middle or the bottom or the top,” said Wiedefeld, who took over Metro in November.
Wiedefeld agreed that Metro’s record on passenger and employee fatalities was worrisome.
“Clearly, it’s the most serious [issue] of anything that we deal with, both from the passenger and employee perspective, and it’s the one that’s the biggest concern to me,” Wiedefeld said.
He also said that the drop in Metro’s reliability in recent years resulted in part from lack of maintenance and poor training. Federal data showed that Metro’s rate of major mechanical failures jumped in 2008, and the number of derailments has increased since 2012.
“Some of it has been based on the aging of the infrastructure, the deferred maintenance in some cases, the inadequacy of time to get out and correct some of these things,” Wiedefeld said. “Then, clearly, training and the human element are part of it, and making sure you’ve got people that understand the importance of what they do from a safety perspective.”
To account for the systems’ widely varying sizes, The Post calculated annual rates for each type of incident, according to criteria recommended by government and industry experts. For instance, passenger fatalities and injuries were measured per billion passenger miles traveled. Collisions, derailments and fires were calculated per million train miles, when trains were in service.
Then The Post computed average rates for each type of incident for each system from 2008 to 2015 for safety data and from 2011 to 2014 for mechanical failures.
Some of the data appeared contradictory. For instance, although Metro had the second-highest rate of passenger fatalities since 2008, its rate for passenger injuries was the third-lowest. With 303 passenger injuries, its rate was less than half as bad as that of the three cities with the highest rates — Philadelphia, Miami and Chicago.
Metro also was in the middle of the pack for collisions, derailments and fires, although its performance has slipped recently.
Metro averaged two derailments a year from 2012 to 2015, according to the federal database, although it never had more than one a year going back to 2005. (The federal figures in these categories are much lower than some reported publicly by Metro because the FTA’s database uses stricter standards for inclusion.)
The fire totals for Metro in 2014 and 2015 were the highest since 2007.
Wiedefeld noted that other studies have identified the same deterioration in Metro in recent years. “We haven’t been maintaining [the system] the way we should. We haven’t given ourselves the time we need to do it.”
That concern prompted the current SafeTrack program, which has shut down or slowed service to an unprecedented degree in an extensive maintenance blitz to rehabilitate the 40-year-old system.
The slippage in quality of service in recent years is typical of systems of Metro’s vintage, according to Puentes of the Eno Center for Transportation.
Riders of such systems are especially prone to be critical, he said, because many recall how well the systems performed when they were new.
“It’s these middle-aged systems . . . [such as] Atlanta, Washington, which came after suburbanization,” Puentes said. “The system has performed well for so long and now is really creaking under the strains of ridership and lack of reinvestment. These seem to be the places where people are most vocal . . . about the challenges.”
Washington bears the extra burden of being in the nation’s capital, so the federal government and public pay more attention to it.
“The general public does have high expectations of the D.C. system, as it is newer, has received very generous U.S. taxpayer treatment and people do see it as a model and national system that they want to be proud of,” said Steven E. Polzin, a director at the University of South Florida’s Center for Urban Transportation Research.
For “major” mechanical failures of rail cars, Metro was fourth out of nine — though deteriorating in recent years and appreciably worse than for Philadelphia, New York, Chicago and San Francisco. A “major” vehicle failure is defined as one in which the train is disabled and cannot move.
Wiedefeld blamed difficulties with certain series of rail cars that he hopes to replace and for which maintenance problems have been chronic.
For “other” vehicle mechanical failures, Metro had the third-lowest rate. These include incidents in which a train is capable of moving but is taken out of service because of such problems as a jammed door or broken air conditioning.
While middle-aged systems such as Metro tend to attract public criticism, the data showed that older subway systems — such as those in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and Boston — tended to have higher rates than others for collisions, derailments and fires. Industry executives attributed that partly to the conditions in their tunnels.
“Clearly the older, larger systems . . . are the ones that sort of lead the pack here, largely because of their operating environments,” said Richard White, acting president of the American Public Transportation Association and a former Metro general manager. “Fires are frequently driven by debris on the track. In these types of urban environments, you’re going to see a lot more of that stuff.”
Similarly, four systems with some of the oldest rail cars also had the highest rates of major mechanical failures. The four were Atlanta, Miami, Boston and Metro.
The FTA declined to comment about individual agencies’ data while saying federal law dictates the reporting standards.
“All agencies must follow a uniform standard when submitting their data, which we then review and validate for consistency,” said the FTA’s Kincaid.
The National Transit Database figures are widely used in the industry, including by Metro. “If you’re going to compare transit systems, that is the tool for comparing them,” said Sarah Kaufman, assistant director at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation.
If the data shows Metro isn’t the worst subway, which is? No system stood out unmistakably as the poorest performer.
Los Angeles had the highest rate of passenger fatalities, but that was partly a sign of its low volume of traffic. From 2008 through 2015, two riders were killed on the Los Angeles system — or one every four years.
Los Angeles had the lowest rates for collisions and derailments, and had no employee fatalities.
Two systems that had poor showings in a number of categories were Philadelphia’s and Chicago’s. Their rates of collisions, derailments and passenger injuries were among the highest.
A top official for Philadelphia’s subway blamed old equipment for its high collision and derailment rates and cited the system’s own willingness to admit problems.
“Many of our systems are in the 100-year [age] range,” said Scott Sauer, assistant general manager for safety. “Some of it has to do with the aggressive nature of our reporting [of incidents]. We report everything as diligently as we possibly can.”
The Chicago Transit Authority said maintenance was also a factor.
“In talking to our safety and security personnel, that is not always the case that there is a direct line” between a system’s age and its number of accidents, spokesman Brian Steele said.
“It’s more so a function of how well those systems are maintained and how the data is reported,” he said.