Metro commuters who do so will not find a divine comedy in those details. Since the Blue Line derailment last week uncovered a long-standing issue with malfunctioning wheel assemblies on Metro’s new 7000-series subway cars, wait times of 30 to 40 minutes for most trains are now the rule, and will be at least until the end of the month. All of those cars, more than half the system’s fleet, have been withdrawn for inspections. And rather than the shiny 7000-series that Metro touted as standard-bearers of new and improved service, many of the trains now running are more than three decades old.
Riding one of the nation’s busiest subway systems has become a nearly Dante-esque nightmare, not to mention a blow to the D.C. area’s pandemic recovery.
In what amounts to a vote of no confidence in the very agency it oversees, Metro’s own board of directors this week hired outside consultants to report on the system’s safety problems, including concerns about communications, inspections, training and reporting practices. It’s deeply troubling that the directors concluded that was necessary, but it was clearly a smart move. Not only were they kept in the dark by Metro officials about the wheel troubles, which began in 2017; so was the independent safety commission established by Congress two years ago to provide oversight of Metro following a series of mishaps and disasters.
The derailment Oct. 12 caused no serious injuries but did frighten many of the nearly 200 passengers; it also cast a spotlight on a host of evident failures and raised questions that need answering. Among them:
The same car that derailed had come off the tracks twice previously the same day — was that known, and, if so, why was the car kept in service? Why were passengers on the train that derailed provided no information for some 15 minutes after the train ground to a halt in a tunnel approaching Arlington Cemetery? Did it not occur to Metro’s control center that such a delay could have prompted panic, or led some passengers to self-evacuate, putting themselves at risk of electrocution on the tunnel’s third rail?
What approach to fixing a problem that first cropped up four years ago had Metro settled on with the 7000-series manufacturer, Kawasaki Rail Car in Nebraska, which supplied 748 of the cars to the transit agency between 2015 and 2020? Why was that approach not discussed with Metro’s board or with the safety oversight commission?
And who at Metro devised the boneheaded idea of providing the passengers aboard the stricken train with credits of $21 on their SmarTrip cards? Is that pittance fair recompense for anxiety, consternation and, for some passengers, terror?
Metro has some explaining to do, and better it does it soon rather than let its failures fester.