Metro’s failure-prone subway — once considered a transportation jewel — is mired in disrepair because the transit agency neglected to heed warnings that its aging equipment and poor safety culture would someday lead to chronic breakdowns and calamities.
For nearly half a century, almost since construction of the subway system began, federal experts, civic and business groups, private transit organizations, and some Metro general managers and directors have raised red flags.
The alarms came repeatedly, at public hearings and Metro board meetings, in crash investigations and published studies, including 14 reports reviewed for this article: The agency lacked a robust institutional safety consciousness, its maintenance regime was close to negligent, and the system desperately needed a steadier, more dependable source of financing.
But generations of executives and government-appointed Metro board members, along with Washington-area politicians who ultimately dictated Metro’s spending and direction, steered the agency on a different course.
“America’s subway,” which opened in 1976 to great acclaim — promoted as a marvel of modern transit technology and design — has been reduced to an embarrassment, scorned and ridiculed from station platforms to the halls of Congress. Balky and unreliable on its best days, and hazardous, even deadly, on its worst, Metrorail is in crisis, losing riders and revenue and exhausting public confidence.
Thousands of pages of documents and dozens of interviews show that the decline of Metro is a story about head-in-the-sand leadership through its history, about political inertia and timidity among the multiple jurisdictions that govern the agency, about fateful misjudgments in strategic planning, and about cautions ignored or underestimated while the subway grew older and rot set in, just as the warnings had predicted.
In the past 15 months alone — among other, uncountable, less spectacular Metro emergencies and daily annoyances — this has happened:
Scores of passengers were sickened, one fatally, in a smoke-filled tunnel; a fire in a Metro power plant slowed and canceled trains for weeks; major stretches of the system were paralyzed for hours by a derailment stemming from a track defect that should have been fixed long before; and, on March 16, in an unprecedented workday aggravation for every Metro straphanger, the entire subway was shut down for 24 hours for urgent safety repairs.
Just this weekend, fire on a Red Line track near the Friendship Heights station caused the evacuation of a train in a tunnel and disruption for hours.
Meanwhile, many commuters are opting out. Subway ridership, which increased annually for 13 years starting in 1996, is down 5 percent since 2010 and continues to fall, even as the region’s population grows. Metro has long blamed the decline on economic and social factors. But in October, for the first time, the agency acknowledged another reason: “the frequency of severe delays.”
“Riders have been forced to budget more travel time to avoid being late,” one report noted. Another cited “concern by customers over service quality and reliability.”
The on-time rate for Metro trains, which hovered above 90 percent for most of 2012, was down to 84 percent last year because of “railcar, power and track equipment problems” that “led to longer and more variable travel times.”
In addition to that bad news last year, huge money problems surfaced.
“It was stunning about the financial disrepair,” James C. Dinegar, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, said in an interview about the 130-mile rail system, a vital engine of the region’s economy. “It was stunning about the safety culture, but also the state of [equipment] disrepair,” he said. “I do think that it’s inexcusable that they have so many different problems.”
What went wrong?
Based on volumes of records, some dating back 40-plus years, and interviews with former and current Metro officials and other close observers of the agency, a lot went wrong.
It’s a story about a modern-era subterranean rail network constructed in a fast-paced, congested metropolitan area. Boston’s and New York’s systems, by contrast, were born in less-crowded regions more than a century ago. Metro was built with two tracks, not four as in New York — and with few pocket tracks, where trains can be parked out of the way — to hold down costs and minimize public disruption during the work. Now there is too little room in the narrow tunnels for maintenance and repair crews and hundreds of thousands of commuters together.
As one former Metro executive said, it’s about “a two-lane road running at interstate-highway speeds, carrying interstate-highway traffic, with limited off-ramps.”
It’s also a story about the agency’s early faith in automation — that computers would negate human error — which seemed to stunt the development of a safety culture, resulting in disasters. And it’s about years of deferring unglamorous but vital infrastructure maintenance as the subway matured, while officials instead pushed for more expansion: more rail lines and stations, more ribbon-cuttings and opportunities for economic development.
It’s about a legacy of poor communication between unionized workers and their bosses regarding deficiencies in the system — a persistent “disconnect” that spans the agency’s existence, said the new general manager, Paul J. Wiedefeld. Many employees fear being disciplined or branded as malcontents if they point out flaws. The problem, which Wiedefeld hopes to rectify, has a corrosive impact on subway safety and service.
And it’s a story about money, about elected leaders unwilling to seek a special tax to pay for Metro, afraid of a voter backlash. It’s about a $3 billion-a-year agency without dedicated funding (unique among big U.S. transit systems) going hat in hand to the governments of Maryland, Virginia and the District, seeking annual operating subsidies from three jurisdictions with differing priorities and budget constraints.
The alarms have been remarkably consistent. On safety, in multiple reports over four straight decades, the National Transportation Safety Board faulted Metro for overreliance on automation and neglecting safety procedures.
On funding, the U.S. comptroller general said in 1979 that Metro risked “a continuing financial crisis” unless the local jurisdictions created a dependable stream of cash. In 2004, the general manager warned of a “death spiral” unless investments were made in maintenance. The following year, a blue-ribbon commission said that as the system aged, it was “literally falling apart.”
Concern about Metro’s fragmented governing structure also is not new. A private study in 1982 called the structure of the board of directors “entirely unsuitable” for its task. And yet another blue-ribbon commission, in 2010, said that “Metro’s troubling decline in performance will continue unless fundamental changes are made to improve governance, leadership and accountability.”
Now comes the work of resurrecting Metro, of reviving a subway that recorded about 214 million passenger trips last year, down from a peak of 225 million in 2009.
It’s a herculean task that falls to a fresh cast of leaders.
Wiedefeld, a former head of the Maryland Transit Administration, was hired as general manager in November after serving as director of Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport.
Vowing to take a methodical approach to fixing the system rather than “lurching” from one crisis to another, he said he is finalizing a comprehensive maintenance plan that will involve significant service disruptions to make room for work crews in tunnels.
D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), elected chairman of Metro’s governing board in January, has started beating the drum for dedicated funding — a proposal so seemingly untenable politically that, until now, supporters of the idea hadn’t bothered pushing for it for years.
Maybe there’s nowhere for Metro to go but up.
“We have gotten behind the eight ball so far, so deep, and deferred this stuff for so long, that the size of the hole we have to climb out of is monumental,” said Richard A. White, who became Metro general manager in 1996 and held the job for a decade. His was the longest tenure of any of the 15 chief executives, including a few interim appointees, in the agency’s history.
Given Metro’s record of wrong-way decisions, White said, “I don’t think we should be surprised where we are after going down this road.”
Amid much hoopla surrounding the 1970s construction of Metrorail — heralded as a marvelous creation that would usher the capital area into the future, advancing the region economically and socially — there was an undercurrent of worries. And some of those concerns would echo through the years in moments of calamity.
In September 1970, less than a year after Congress gave the go-ahead for the subway to be built, three federal agencies published a joint report warning that Metro, in relying heavily on automation, was too cavalier about the potential for human mistakes in train operations. Metrorail’s designers and others working to develop the system had paid insufficient attention to the need for strict, written safety criteria.
“The absence of provisions for a disciplined, systemic review of the entire project has resulted in a system with identifiable hazards which could lead to disaster in future operations,” the report said.
Those concerns, over time, would turn out to be prescient, as technical malfunctions, some involving automation, as well as faulty communications and poor training, contributed to rail accidents that killed 14 people: three in 1982, one in 1996, nine in 2009 and one last year. Two of the dead were train operators, and the rest were passengers.
Workers and managers resisted efforts at reform because they were set in their ways and because they were more concerned about keeping revenue-producing trains running on time, some former officials said.
“What I found at [Metro], you would set up a [safety] training session and two-thirds of the people wouldn’t show up,” recalled John B. Catoe Jr., who was the agency’s top executive from 2007 to 2010. “Their managers felt they were needed for something more important.”
Catoe said he blamed himself, in part, because he relied on a top-down management style that was unsuccessful.
The agency never solved those shortcomings in its workplace culture so that it could meet the NTSB’s professional safety standards and improve customer service, said Chris Zimmerman, who was a Metro board member for 12 years, until 2010. “Almost every general manager I knew wanted to do something to change the institutional culture of the place,” he said. But “it’s not an easy thing to do.”
The public bears some responsibility, said Zimmerman, a former member of the Arlington County Board. Many people give lip service to the idea of safety-related maintenance, then get angry when track work delays their commutes. And that creates tension within Metro — an endless push-pull between upgrading infrastructure and moving trains efficiently.
“Nobody really believes in a safety-first culture; they only believe it after the fact when something [bad] happens,” Zimmerman said. “Really what they believe in is ‘Me get home first.’ And there is a trade-off.”
Six months before the subway opened in March 1976, the NTSB issued a report about Metro that repeated the federal warning from 1970: The agency was overly wedded to the concept that computers, far more than people, would control train movements in the years ahead as automation technology grew more sophisticated.
“The apparent belief is that through this increased automation, the impact of human error could be reduced or even eliminated,” the report said, and went on to criticize Metro’s approach as “automation for automation’s sake.”
And this happened: On Jan. 6, 1996, a train under computer control was barreling too fast, at 75 mph, in a blizzard. Unable to decelerate quickly enough on snow-covered rails near the Shady Grove station, the train slammed into a parked, unoccupied train, killing the operator.
Metro could have turned off its automated system during the storm and let train operators do the driving in “manual mode.” But it had decided not to.
“The train was thus allowed to continue to operate in automatic mode at above-normal speed on known slippery tracks toward a location where significant station over-run could result in a collision,” NTSB officials later said, warning that Metro’s “total faith in technology, no matter how advanced and sophisticated that technology may be, is inappropriate.”
The agency’s reliance on computer-driven trains led to far greater catastrophe June 22, 2009, when the automated system broke down. After a technical glitch fouled the intricate process of communication between track-based electronics and the computer on a train traveling near the Fort Totten station, the computer failed to register that an idle train was parked just ahead. So it didn’t apply the brakes.
In the ensuing rear-end crash — the worst disaster in Metro’s history — the operator of the moving train and eight of her passengers were killed.
The NTSB, in its report on the accident, offered a litany of Metro shortcomings, including problems with “internal communications . . . recognition of hazards . . . assessment of risk from those hazards . . . and implementation of corrective actions.”
And it said the troubles were “all evidence of an ineffective safety culture in the organization” — that the transit agency had failed to “vigorously apply the lessons learned from previous Metrorail accidents and incidents.”
After the Fort Totten crash, Metro shut down its automated train-operation system and has been re-engineering and rebuilding it ever since. For seven years, nearly all trains have been running in manual mode — with humans at the controls.
Metro also has let its tracks, electrical systems, rail cars and other equipment deteriorate, despite escalating warnings that major repairs or replacements were required.
A principal reason has been the unwillingness of Washington-area jurisdictions to contribute the billions of dollars necessary to pay for the work.
As a result, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, Metro received far less money than it said was needed — although, after the shock of the 2009 crash, local jurisdictions and the federal government agreed on a six-year, $5 billion Metro capital investment plan.
That was still less than half of what Metro had said was the necessary amount. And yet the agency has failed to use all the funds available to it. From 2011 to 2015, Metro spent only $3.7 billion of $5.1 billion that was budgeted. The reason? A recent Metro report cited an array of factors, including “insufficient management controls” and delays in executing contracts by both Metro and its vendors.
By the early 1990s, then-General Manager David L. Gunn was urging the agency’s governing board to start setting aside money to begin a big rebuilding program.
Commuters started realizing that something was amiss in 1999, when Metro endured days of crippling disruptions during the busy Cherry Blossom Festival. Concern also grew because of a rash of escalator breakdowns.
But political leaders in Maryland, Virginia and the District, who share responsibility for the transit system, balked at levying taxes or fees to pay for an overhaul, while they continued to press for expansion.
First, they wanted to concentrate on completing the Blue and Green lines, partly to encourage revitalization of some of the area’s less-affluent neighborhoods. Most of that was accomplished in the 1990s. Later, they wanted to focus on adding the Silver Line, to promote economic growth in Northern Virginia and eventually create a rail link to Dulles International Airport.
When the subway opened in 1976, it was just five stations along an embryonic stretch of the Red Line in downtown Washington. It reached its originally envisioned size (not including the Silver Line) in the early years of the new century.
When White used the phrase “death spiral” to call attention to Metro’s need to start rebuilding parts of the existing system, he said he got “pushback” from Metro board members and the elected officials who appointed them.
Instead, they kept pushing for Metro to grow. The politicians who held the purse strings seemed happy to invest in laying new tracks and opening new stations, where they could tout development at opening ceremonies. But they cared less about spending for maintenance to prevent breakdowns years later, when they might no longer be in office.
Said White: “People couldn’t get enough of this extension stuff, and didn’t want to listen to anything about taking the medicine, and taking care of what needed to be taken care of.”
The problem of infrastructure maintenance as an afterthought manifests itself in many ways, large and small, and riders suffer the consequences: Brake trouble disables a train and they are ordered to get off, for instance, or a broken rail forces trains traveling in opposite directions to share one track, resulting in long delays, crowded platforms and, these days, a storm of irate tweets.
There are no more dramatic examples than two in recent months, involving Metro’s failure to properly maintain heavy-duty power cables in tunnels. The insulation wore out over time, exposing the electrical wires.
On Jan. 12, 2015, this led to a fire on tracks in a Yellow Line tunnel near the L’Enfant Plaza station. Noxious fumes enveloped a stalled train, sickening more than 80 passengers, one of whom died from inhaling the smoke.
Then last month, on March 14, an electrical fire broke out in a tunnel near the McPherson Square station before the subway’s morning opening. Two days later, after inspectors determined that frayed power cables were the cause — as they had been in the L’Enfant Plaza calamity — Wiedefeld shut down the subway for an emergency inspection and repairs.
In an interview, the new general manager talked about trying to get his arms around the mess that he inherited and figure out the best way to fix it.
“One of the things that has kind of struck me, this agency has had some of the top people in the business . . . come through it,” Wiedefeld said. “What is it about when they get here, it usually doesn’t end up well, especially in the last 10 years?”
Political leaders and their representatives on the Metro board also were wary of saving money if it meant sacrificing service.
In 2006, then-interim general manager Dan Tangherlini was rebuffed when he urged cost-reducing measures such as replacing some short escalators with stairs, selling Metro’s headquarters building, and buying rail cars made from an older design rather than commissioning expensive new engineering work.
“The board resisted efforts we needed to adopt a more efficient, leaner approach,” Tangherlini recalled. “They wanted the system they already had, but they didn’t know where they were going to get the dollars to pay for it.”
After nine months as a fill-in top executive, Tangherlini did not get the general manager’s job, largely because Virginia representatives on the Metro board were worried that his interest in revitalizing existing subway lines would threaten the agency’s commitment to building the Silver Line.
Tangherlini said he was in favor of the extension but also felt that older parts of the subway were in dire need of attention.
“Part of my challenge,” he said, “was convincing some of the board that we needed to care about the other color lines, as well.”
Perhaps the one Metro issue that has spurred the most public debate with the least results is the lack of a dedicated revenue source.
Anybody who pays close attention to the agency knows that it is the nation’s only major subway without a regional sales tax, gasoline tax or other source of funds designated to support a significant part of its budget. Other transit systems typically get 20 to 50 percent of their operating revenue from such taxes or fees.
By contrast, Metro must beg every year for hundreds of millions of dollars from the District, Maryland and Virginia to pay its operating costs. It also has to ask them — and ask the federal government, too, in recent years — for capital-improvement money to cover infrastructure upgrades and buy major equipment.
After an exhaustive study in 2001, the U.S. General Accounting Office warned that Metro faced a shortfall of nearly $4 billion that it needed just to rehabilitate the existing system and increase its capacity to handle projected regional population growth.
With few exceptions, however, state and local political leaders were unwilling to risk angering voters by seeking new taxes or fees. And their resistance hardened after the 2002 elections, which delivered a pair of setbacks for transit funding.
In a referendum in Northern Virginia and the state’s Hampton Roads area, voters rejected a proposal to raise local sales taxes to pay for transportation. Conservative groups opposed any tax hike, while some pro-transit groups fought against the measure because the money would have been used not only for Metro but for roads.
Also that year, Maryland elected a new governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who was much less supportive of transit funding than his predecessor, Democrat Parris N. Glendening.
As the funding shortage continued to stir concern, the alarm was sounded again, in a 2005 report by a high-level Metro funding panel. It warned that Metro would face dire results without dedicated funding and fresh money from the federal government.
“The time for definitive action is now,” the panel, appointed by local governments and business groups, declared, “if Metro is to avoid a downward spiral in its condition and performance.”
Still, a dedicated funding source was not forthcoming. Catoe described presenting a staff report to the Metro board in 2008 that said the agency needed $11 billion to buy new rail cars and other equipment and to pay for subway repairs, including upgrading track signals and fixing water leaks in tunnels.
“I was looked at like I was crazy,” he recalled. “Where are we going to get $11 billion? That was the reality. That’s what it’s going to cost.”
The push for a dedicated tax was also stalled by a parallel — and surprisingly successful — effort to wrest more money for Metro from the federal government.
After years of effort, then-U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) and a bipartisan group of Washington-area lawmakers persuaded Congress to pass a bill authorizing $150 million a year in federal funds to Metro, as long as local jurisdictions kicked in an equal amount.
The assistance was welcome. But it came with conditions: It provided only capital-improvement funds, not money for Metro’s operating expenses. And it ends in fiscal 2019, unless Congress and the White House decide to extend it.
Moreover, on the downside for transit advocates, “the Davis bill,” as it is called, decreased pressure to move ahead on a permanent dedicated funding source from the region.
Evans, Metro’s new board chairman, said that to meet Metro’s needs, a regional dedicated funding source would have to provide an additional $1 billion annually for capital improvements. The transit agency has estimated that a 1-cent hike in sales taxes in the jurisdictions served by Metro would yield close to $700 million a year.
Any effort to raise more money for Metro through a tax or fee, however, would immediately face formidable opposition from critics who argue that the agency is guilty of grossly mishandling the money it already has received.
For example, in addition to leaving money unused, Metro spent federal grant money improperly for years, according to a 2014 outside audit. As a result, the Federal Transit Administration has greatly restricted Metro’s access to such funds.
“Nobody was stealing money,” said longtime board member Mortimer L. Downey, who preceded Evans as chairman. “But people were not managing the way they should.”
As he put it, “it’s kind of like a bank teller losing track of where the money is.”
One explanation for Metro’s perpetual troubles lies in what could be considered its original design flaw: Responsibility for the agency is divided among so many players that ultimately no one is held accountable.
It’s partly a function of geography. Unlike the subways in New York, Boston, Chicago and other big cities, the Washington area’s rail system crosses state lines.
Authority over Metro (which is the official nickname of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, or WMATA) is shared equally on its 16-member board. The District, Maryland, Virginia and, since 2010, the federal government each appoint four representatives. Two of the four are voting members, and two are alternates.
Board members past and present complain that nothing important gets done unless the District’s mayor and the governors in Annapolis and Richmond reach a consensus and push an issue forward. But the three often have divergent interests or are too busy with other matters to give Metro the attention it needs.
“This is the issue where everybody owns WMATA and then nobody owns WMATA,” said White, the former general manager. “It’s an institutional orphan.” After the sometimes exhilarating job of building the subway was finished, and “responsibility shifted to taking care of what you already had,” White said, “nobody owned it.”
Last year, Metro’s progress in dealing with its problems effectively ground to a halt while a bitter battle raged among board members over the selection of a new general manager. Wiedefeld was finally hired in November — 14 months after his predecessor, Richard Sarles, had announced his impending retirement and 10 months after he departed the agency.
In addition, throughout Metro’s history, many board members have secured their posts through political patronage and lacked expertise in transportation.
U.S. Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) is preparing a Metro reform bill that would require future board appointees to be certified as transit, management or financial experts.
“Ultimately, Metro’s failure rests on the shoulders of its governing board, a group that is not currently required to meet any standards or even demonstrate that they know anything about large-scale transit operations,” Delaney said. “Is it any surprise that the system has failed?”
The concern isn’t new. In 1982, for example, a study commissioned by the Greater Washington Research Center described the composition of the board as “entirely unsuitable for overseeing the management of an operating transit system.” And in 2010, a task force appointed by the region’s top government and business groups reached a similar conclusion.
The latter study, “Moving Metro Forward,” was commissioned after the 2009 rail crash that killed nine people. The report found that the elected chief executives in Maryland, Virginia and the District “do not meet” to discuss Metro issues and “have never agreed to uniform expectations or role descriptions for their board members.”
The panel recommended creating a WMATA Governance Commission with seven members, including the governors of Maryland and Virginia and the District’s mayor. The idea was for the officials to meet twice a year; to set goals, priorities and expectations for their Metro board representatives; and to hold the appointees accountable.
The report was issued Nov. 17, 2010. Within two months, the heads of the transportation departments in the three jurisdictions had killed the proposed commission. They did not want to commit their chief executives to such semiannual meetings.
Instead, they adopted some of the report’s easier recommendations, such as giving Metro’s general manager the additional title of chief executive officer.
James Dyke, who was chairman of the Greater Washington Board of Trade at the time and was co-chairman of the blue-ribbon panel, said the three jurisdictions chose “low-hanging fruit” over the more substantial proposal for a high-level governance commission.
“Ultimately, the executive leadership of the jurisdictions has to have responsibility,” said Dyke, who later served on Metro’s board. Like others on the transit board, Dyke said, he was frustrated by a lack of guidance from above. “The governors have to meet regularly and set a common agenda,” he said.
Until then, it will be largely up to Wiedefeld to bring Metro back to life.
“We tend to manage a bit crisis-by-crisis,” Wiedefeld said, sitting at a conference table in his new office one recent morning.
On his desk across the room, his cellphone sounded a jolting alarm, like a submarine dive horn, and he got up to check what was wrong. Mechanical trouble in a tunnel was threatening a service delay, it turned out. He said his phone frequently delivers such news.
“We have to think through this thing as a system, and think up systemic approaches to these things,” Wiedefeld said, promising to take an orderly, comprehensive approach.
He warned that he almost certainly will have to shut down parts of the subway for days at a stretch to get the job done. “It’s going to be some tough medicine to swallow. But it’s medicine that maybe we’ve got to take.”