The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Metro is short on trains, drivers — and public confidence

A renovated platform at Metro's Addison Road-Seat Pleasant station in May 2021. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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The D.C. area’s transit system, struggling to regain even half its pre-pandemic subway ridership, is short on trains, short on train drivers and, for good reason, short on public confidence. Along with Metro’s customer base, its revenue flow has been decimated. When top Metro officials told a Maryland legislative panel the other day that the agency had turned a corner, some lawmakers were incredulous. “If we’ve turned a corner, we’ve run into a wall,” said state Del. Marc A. Korman, a Democrat whose suburban Montgomery County district includes several Red Line stations.

Yet as Metro’s management travails and safety lapses continue to mount, the most worrying of its challenges, a budget implosion looming next year, goes all but undiscussed — including by the system’s top stakeholders. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) hasn’t mentioned it. The dozen or so candidates running in Maryland’s gubernatorial primaries haven’t highlighted it. And D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has been mostly mum beyond asserting, on her reelection campaign website, that she has “invested in transportation.”

Ms. Bowser, first elected eight years ago, needs no tutorials on the central role Metro played in the District’s long-running pre-pandemic boom, or its critical importance to the city’s prospects for recovery — a process she says will take several years. She rightly expressed alarm last month when Metro acknowledged that half of its roughly 500 train conductors were not up-to-date on their training and dozens had to be pulled from their regular day jobs to get recertified, exacerbating delays. The transit agency, the mayor said, has a management problem.

That appears to be an understatement. After the training recertification meltdown was divulged, Metro’s general manager, Paul J. Wiedefeld, resigned a month before his scheduled retirement, as did a top deputy. Both had been at their jobs for six years, during which the agency seemed to make tangible progress on safety and maintenance after a string of accidents and failures.

However, revelations since last fall have renewed long-standing concerns that Metro’s deeply entrenched culture problems persist. Those revelations included malfunctioning wheels on Metro’s newest generation of rail cars — a safety problem known for years but never reported to senior managers or to Metro’s board — that resulted in a derailment last fall. That triggered ongoing delays owing to more than half the subway’s fleet of rail cars being pulled from service. More recently, Metro’s chief safety officers reported that an “alarming” number of subway maintenance workers have narrowly missed being electrocuted by third rails to which power had not been cut, as is required when such track work is underway.

Those problems strongly suggest that rehabilitating Metro would be a daunting enough problem were it on a sound budgetary footing. In fact, the agency is on financial life support in the form of a huge infusion of federal pandemic stimulus funds, which will start to run out next summer.

“Long-term, we’re going to have to have a serious discussion about the financial model — is it sustainable?” said Paul C. Smedberg, Metro’s board chairman. “How are we going to fund [the system] going forward?”

That’s the right question. But the people who need to answer it are silent.