The fatal 2009 Metro Red Line crash was a pivotal event that shocked transit agencies nationwide and triggered overdue federal reforms that improved safety and oversight, industry analysts say.
But Metro and other aging transit systems can’t do as much as they should for safety or reliability because political gridlock in Washington has blocked the adoption of a national infrastructure program that would provide adequate funding, they say.
“Safety costs money, and you can’t shortchange it,” said Ray LaHood, who was U.S. transportation secretary when the crash occurred. “Transit agencies around the country really understood [after Fort Totten] . . . that safety had to be their top priority. The only reason that maybe they couldn’t do all the things they wanted to do was for a lack of resources.”
The crash, which occurred at the height of the evening rush, between the Takoma and Fort Totten Metro stations 10 years ago this month, was the worst in Metro’s 43-year history, killing nine people — including a train operator — and injuring 80.
The disaster led Congress to give the Federal Transit Administration safety oversight of public transit. It also helped spur the creation of federal safety standards for the nation’s subways and light-rail systems.
For Metro, the lessons from the crash went beyond safety. The event marked the start of a decade of mishaps, revelations and safety lapses that cast a spotlight on problems with the agency’s maintenance, finances, management, oversight and culture.
However, it took a second calamity, the death of 61-year-old Carol Glover after smoke filled a train tunnel near L’Enfant Plaza in January 2015, and several other stumbles to ultimately force a reckoning.
In 2016, for example, six workers were fired after an investigation revealed that nearly half of the track-inspection department had engaged in a pattern of fabrication and negligence that led to a derailment that July. Metro said the workers had falsified track inspection reports for as long as three years. And the National Transportation Safety Board said Metro knew of the potentially dangerous track conditions more than a year before the derailment.
Federal officials were so concerned about the agency’s fiscal management and inability to account for hundreds of millions in federal grant money that FTA officials restricted Metro’s ability to draw on federal funds until the agency could get its financial house in order.
In October 2015, then-Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx grew so frustrated with Metro’s safety problems that he took the unprecedented step of transferring safety oversight of the rail system to the FTA. In several instances, the FTA threatened to shut down the system because of safety lapses and had prepared for the possibility.
Fort Totten “changed the agency and brought to light some of the issues that needed to be dealt with, and are still being dealt with,” Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld, who came to the agency in November 2015, said in a recent interview. “Unfortunately, it took another number of years, seven, before we started to really grapple with the much larger issues that we were facing.”
Many of those challenges remain. There is dissatisfaction in the District over cutbacks in late-night service, and in Northern Virginia over this summer’s closing of six Blue and Yellow line stations south of Reagan National Airport for a platform rebuilding project. Metro says the steps were necessary to allow time to catch up on overdue maintenance.
It is also not clear that Metro can regain ridership it lost in the turmoil of the past decade. The ethics controversy that has recently enveloped former Metro board member and chairman Jack Evans showed that problems with governance and leadership persist.
Still, there is broad consensus that Metro has made significant progress, albeit halting. On-time performance is the best it has been in eight years. Metro’s budget is receiving clean audits. The District, Maryland and Virginia agreed last year to provide it with $500 million a year in dedicated funding, finally ending its status as the nation’s only major transit system without such support.
And a recent Washington Post-Schar School poll found that Metro’s reputation in the region has improved dramatically in the past two years and has almost reached the positive levels it enjoyed before the incident at L’Enfant Plaza.
In the critical area of safety, Metro has replaced its 1000-series rail cars, which had a tendency to “telescope” in a collision to deadly effect, which is what happened in the Fort Totten crash. The cars were found to be uncrashworthy.
Tracks, power cables and station platforms are being modernized to reduce the risk of crashes as well as delays. Wiedefeld has made it a priority to break down bureaucratic “silos” that meant safety concerns were undervalued.
“It’s hard to find anybody who says it hasn’t gotten better,” said Robert J. Puentes, president of the Eno Center for Transportation. “While the issue of safety culture was not unknown [before Fort Totten] . . . it was almost background noise until it became front and center with the tragedy.”
For two women who lost daughters at Fort Totten, the fear lingers. To this day, neither is willing to ride Metro.
“I don’t even enter the tunnel,” said Tawanda Brown, who lives within walking distance of the District’s Capitol Heights station. “They have not reassured me that I would be safe.”
She still has nightmares about that Monday evening when her child, LaVonda “Nikki” King, 23, climbed aboard Red Line Train 112.
Carolyn Jenkins also stopped taking Metro after losing her daughter Veronica DuBose, 29.
“I attempted to get on it and I felt claustrophobic,” Jenkins said of her last attempt to ride a Metro train. “I could feel all the pain that she went through.”
Unlike Brown, however, Jenkins takes satisfaction from her conviction that Metro learned from the mistakes.
“They still have issues, but they have made their turn,” Jenkins said. “It hurts me to my heart that my daughter was killed on that train. But it’s good to see they are trying to do what they should have been doing.”
The mothers’ divergent views about whether Metro has done enough in the aftermath of the crash reflect a permanent tension. Metro’s top officials and independent experts agree that the agency can never conclude that it has done all it can for safety. There’s always another step to take, and always the chance of another fatal crash that would scare riders and again sully Metro’s reputation.
“I would encourage everybody at [Metro] not to ever rest on laurels, because it really is a continuous process,” said Christopher Hart, former chairman of the NTSB Board and now chair of the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission.
The commission is one of 31 state or regional agencies created since 2009 and certified by the federal government to regulate rail transit safety. Its staff is empowered to identify safety problems and oversee corrective actions.
Before Fort Totten, the federal government did not enforce transit safety as it did passenger, freight rail and air traffic. A related reform was requiring each transit system to have a chief safety officer reporting directly to the agency’s chief executive.
The 2009 crash focused attention on the importance of having a “safety culture,” in which safety came first, rather than one in which the priority was keeping the trains running to collect fares.
The NTSB investigation of the Fort Totten crash blamed a faulty electronic sensor in the tracks that failed to prevent trains from getting too close to each other.
More broadly and more damningly, the NTSB also said the sensor problem would have been found and fixed if Metro had not lacked a safety culture altogether. Among the system’s deficiencies, workers were reluctant to tell their superiors about potential safety problems for fear of retribution.
Wiedefeld pointed to progress in that area while acknowledging that there was still work to do. He said front-line workers recently sounded the alarm that doors on a rail car had opened while a train was moving. That led the agency to pull nearly 300 cars from service in May for repairs.
“That came from below,” Wiedefeld said. “That was the people who are doing the work saying, ‘Wait a minute, this isn’t right.’ ”
He said hard personnel decisions were necessary to solve problems with track inspections and financial management.
“We had to let go of a number of people,” he said.
The safety commission credited Metro with expanding its safety investigative team since Fort Totten. It said the agency has also remedied the problem of so many alarms going off in the rail operations control center that they were frequently ignored.
“Now, if an alarm goes off, it’s treated as a very serious event,” said David L. Mayer, the commission’s chief executive.
But missteps still occur. Three trains were misrouted in a single week in April, the commission said, albeit without a crash resulting.
The Red Line crash also helped bring attention to the chronic lack of emphasis on preventive maintenance and replacement of aged equipment. It shouldn’t have been a surprise. In 2004, then-General Manager Richard A. White warned of a “death spiral” unless billions of dollars were invested.
Inadequate funding plagues transit systems nationwide and is part of the broader problem of a failure to invest in the nation’s infrastructure, including highways, bridges and water systems. In recent years, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York, and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which runs the Boston subway, have both grappled with a lack of funds to deal with deteriorating systems.
“It’s not that complicated — if the systems don’t get the investment they need along the way, it’s difficult to turn them around,” said Paul P. Skoutelas, president and chief executive of the American Public Transportation Association.
“In these older systems, New York is struggling to do what it needs. We’re seeing the same in Boston,” Skoutelas said. “There needs to be a major infusion for state-of-good-repair needs.”
The U.S. Department of Transportation said in 2015 that the nation’s transit rail and bus systems needed an investment of $90 billion to restore them to a state of good repair. Today, the figure is at least $100 billion, Skoutelas said.
An obstacle to obtaining the money is Congress’s reluctance to increase the federal gasoline tax, a major source of revenue for transit and highways. The tax, 18.4 cents per gallon, was last raised in 1993. Its purchasing power has dropped considerably because of inflation; the federal consumer price index has risen 74 percent since 1993.
“America is one big pothole today because we haven’t raised the gas tax,” said LaHood, the former transportation secretary, referring to problems with transit as well as highways and other infrastructure.
Hopes rose earlier this year that Congress and President Trump might agree on a major infrastructure bill, which Democrats and Republicans say they would like to see. But there is no consensus on how to raise the revenue. Talks broke down in May when Trump said he would not negotiate until Democrats ended congressional investigations into his personal finances and administration.