Tag: subway

America’s Socialized Transit

On the heels of a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report that found that Washington Metro “has failed to learn safety lessons” from previous accidents, Metro general manager Paul Wiedefeld will announce a plan today that promises to disrupt service for months in an effort to get the lines safely running again. While ordinary maintenance can take place during the few hours the system isn’t running every night, Wiedefeld says past officials have let the system decline so much that individual rail lines will have to be taken off line for days or weeks at a time to get them back into shape.

The Washington Post blames the problems on “generations of executives and government-appointed Metro board members, along with Washington-area politicians who ultimately dictated Metro’s spending.” That’s partially true, but there are really two problems with Metro, and different parties are to blame for each.

First is the problem with deferred maintenance. The Metro board recognized that maintenance costs would have to increase as long ago as 2002, when they developed a plan to spend $10 billion to $12 billion rehabilitating the system. This plan was ignored by the “Washington-area politicians who ultimately dictated Metro’s spending” and who decided to fund the Silver and Purple lines instead of repairing what they already had.

Second is the problem with the agency’s safety culture, or lack of one. According to the NTSB report, in violation of its own procedures, Metro used loaded passenger trains to search for the sources of smoke in the tunnels. Metro at first denied doing so, then said it wouldn’t do it any more. But Metro’s past actions sent a signal to employees that passenger safety isn’t important.

The Washington Metro Strategy

The Washington Metrorail system is completely shut down for a safety inspection today after having suffered another fire on Monday. As Metro’s new general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, wants people to know, “Safety is our highest priority.”

The Washington Post says that this decision confirms that Metro is “a national embarrassment.” In fact, the shutdown appears to be a classic Washington Monument strategy, in which bureaucrats try to make budget shortfalls as painful as possible in order to get more money out of Congress or other legislators. Instead of shutting the entire system down, Metro could have done the necessary inspections between midnight and 5 am, when the trains aren’t running. If the full inspections will take the 29 hours the trains won’t be running Wednesday and Thursday morning, then doing them at night would take just six days.

There is no doubt that fires are serious; one in January, 2015, killed someone and hospitalized scores of others. But the fact that these two fires were more than fourteen months apart suggests that there isn’t a major risk of another one in the next few days.

Metro’s fundamental problem is that it uses an expensive, obsolete technology. The federal government paid to build the system, and local governments pay to operate it, but no one ever budgeted for maintenance costs. These costs become especially high after the infrastructure reaches about 30 years of age. The earliest parts of the Metro system will be 40 years old this year, and they have steadily deteriorated over the past decade.

A one-day inspection is not going to solve Metro’s problems. Metro did plenty of inspections since the January, 2015 fire, but that didn’t stop the March, 2016 fire from taking place. Moreover, fires are only a small part of Metro’s problems.

Other problems include worn-out railcars; replacement cars that are late because they are “beset with problems”; an unreliable automatic train operating system that Metro has been slow to restore since the 2009 accident that killed nine people; old rails that are prone to cracking; unreliable elevators and escalators; and a workforce that has so little concern for safety that train operators risk collisions by running red lights at least once a month, plus many more. No wonder Wiedefeld admitted, several months after becoming general manager, that problems are “worse than I thought.”

Fixing these problems is going to require around $10 billion, several years of work, and an overhaul of Metro’s bureaucracy to restore the safety ethic that ought to be, but isn’t, a part of Metro’s culture. That’s billions of dollars that won’t be available to relieve traffic congestion, repave Washington’s crumbling streets, provide safer bicycle and pedestrian facilities, and improve the bus service that is used by more than one out of three of the region’s transit commuters.

Lots of federal workers take the Metro. But the Census Bureau says that less than 10 percent of commuters in the Washington urban area (which includes parts of southern Maryland and northern Virginia) take Metro subway and elevated trains to work. (Another 6.6 percent take buses and a small percentage take Maryland or Virginia commuter trains.)

Instead of spending all that money on just 10 percent of commuters, it’s time for Metro to seriously consider replacing its worn-out rail system with economical and flexible buses. For a little more than $1 billion, Metro could buy enough buses to replace all of its railcars, leaving several billion dollars left over to spend on other transportation improvements that will benefit bus riders along with everyone else in the region, not just those who take Metro rail to work. It sounds radical, but at some point Metro will have to admit that it can’t afford to maintain its high-cost rail system, and buses are the low-cost alternative.

Metro Flunks Snowstorm 101

For the past several years, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro) has vied with San Jose’s Valley Transportation Authority for the non-coveted title of “Worst-Managed Transit System in America.” It is still only January, but with its performance, or rather non-performance, during snowstorm Jonas, Metro appears to have already clinched the title for 2016.

 This is what it takes to shut down Metro subways. Flickr photo taken Sunday morning after the storm by Ted Eyten.

To start with, rather than try to provide transportation for people who needed to travel over the weekend, Metro pre-emptively shut down, ending all bus service at 5 pm Friday (well before the worst of the snow fell) and ending rail service for the weekend at 11 pm. By comparison, New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA)–serving an area that received much more snow than the district–kept its subways running throughout the weekend and kept its above-ground trains and buses going for as long as it could into the storm.

Metro could have followed MTA’s example by keeping the underground portion of its subways running–Ballston to Eastern Market, Medical Center to Union Station, and Fort Totten to Anacostia–all weekend, but chose not to do so. These lines cover much of the length and breadth of the district and could have provided vital transportation for many people. 

Metro’s excuses for shutting down were rather thin. It claimed that passenger safety was more important than the convenience of having service. But how safe is it to be out in a blizzard compared with riding on a subway? Metro also said it needed to put its employees to work to put it back in service on Monday. But the people who operate trains are not maintenance workers and union rules probably prohibited Metro from putting them to work shoveling snow.

Besides, Metro didn’t do a very good job of putting the system back into operation. Most of MTA’s above-ground trains were running by Sunday afternoon. MTA also put most of its bus lines back into service on Monday. Metro was content to open the subway portions of its lines on Monday, leaving its above-ground lines still closed, and to run just 22 out of its 325 bus lines.

Metro might argue that federal offices were closed Monday anyway, so the demand for its services was lower. But if Metro had been more on the ball, federal offices might not have had to close.

In short, MTA passes but Metro flunks Snowstorm 101. But Metro puts itself well ahead of the pack in the race to being the worst-managed transit agency of 2016.

The Perks of Local Government

The Washington Examiner reports:

Six of [the Washington-area mass transit system] Metro’s top executives are assigned agency-owned vehicles that they can drive home, the transit system acknowledged Tuesday, one day after saying none of them had take-home vehicles.

That is in addition to the 116 Metro employees who receive take-home vehicles, including 88 managers and superintendents, first reported by The Washington Examiner.

I wonder if executives and managers at automobile companies get free subway passes?

Insecurity Cameras

Nearly half of the security cameras in the New York City subway system don’t work. That may seem like cause for alarm, and it may be from a financial standpoint — NYC isn’t getting a lot of return on its investment.

From a broader security standpoint, I don’t find this particularly disturbing. As the article points out, crime is down as ridership increases. Reducing the number of police officers on patrol in the subway (as NYC is doing) is more likely to facilitate increased criminality. A camera can catch many things on film, but the presence of law enforcement officers provides intangible benefits that technology cannot. The would-be Millenium Bomber was stopped by a border patrol agent who interviewed him and thought that something was “hinky” about his behavior. That hinkiness involved explosives, and the plot was foiled. Cameras don’t spot “hinky” like people can.

Security expert Bruce Schneier has been talking about this on his blog (emphasis on the Dubai assassination), and provides a fuller discussion of security cameras in this article on CNN.com:

If universal surveillance were the answer, lots of us would have moved to the former East Germany. If surveillance cameras were the answer, camera-happy London, with something like 500,000 of them at a cost of $700 million, would be the safest city on the planet.

We didn’t, and it isn’t, because surveillance and surveillance cameras don’t make us safer. The money spent on cameras in London, and in cities across America, could be much better spent on actual policing.

Security cameras have not proven a great deterrent to crime or terrorism. The attacks on September 11th and the London commuter bombings were not stopped by pre-attack footage of the perpetrators’ activities. Creating a surveillance state may make some people feel safer, but the resources can be better used elsewhere.

Washington Metro’s Problem: Too Much Money

The terrible Washington Metrorail crash that killed nine people has led to calls for more money for transit. Yet the real problem with Washington Metro, as with almost every other transit agency in this country, is that it has too much money – it just spends the money in the wrong places.

“More money” seems to be the solution to every transit issue. Is ridership down? Then transit agencies need more money to attract more riders. Is ridership up? Then agencies need more money because fares only cover a quarter of the costs.

Yet the truth is that urban transit is the most expensive form of transportation in the United States. Where the average auto user spends about 24 cents per passenger mile, transit costs more than 80 cents per passenger mile, three-fourths of which is subsidized by general taxpayers. Subsidies to auto driving average less than a penny per passenger mile. Where autos carry 85 percent of American passenger travel, transit carries about 1 percent.

When Congress began diverting highway user fees to transit in 1982, it gave transit agencies incentives to invest in high-cost transportation systems such as subways and light rail when lower-cost systems such as buses would often work just as well. Once they build the high-cost systems, the transit agencies never plan for the costs of reconstructing them, which is needed about every 30 years. The Washington Metro system, which was built as a “demonstration project” in the 1970s, is just a little ahead of the curve.

Now over 30 years old, Washington’s subways are beginning to break down. Before the recent accident, some of the symptoms were broken rails, smoke in the tunnels, and elevator and escalator outages.

Now we learn that the National Transportation Safety Board told Metro in 2006 to replace the cars that crashed on Monday because they were in danger of “telescoping,” which is what killed so many people in Monday’s accident. Also, the brakes were overdue for maintenance. Metro responded that it planned to eventually replace the obsolete cars, but didn’t have the money for it.

But it does have money to build an expensive new rail line to Tysons Corner and, eventually, Dulles Airport. Planners had originally recommended running bus-rapid transit along this route, but that wasn’t expensive enough so Metro decided to go with rails instead – at ten times the cost of the bus line.

The simple problem is that we have forgotten about the need to weigh revenues and costs. Instead, transit has become a favorite form of pork barrel and, for the slightly more idealistic, a method of social engineering, meaning a part of the Obama administration’s campaign to “coerce people out of their cars.”

That’s one more government program we can do without.