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 safety problem can be blamed on the executives and board. So it’s no surprise that Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx has replaced three board members with people who, he hopes, will place a higher priority on safety than the board members he fired.

Transit unions, meanwhile, deny that they are responsible for any of the problems. Yet demands for high pay, sorting of employees into different categories that sometimes rival one another, and other union-led practices probably contributed to both the safety problems and the funding shortages. Four track workers were killed by trains in 2005 and another in 2009, suggesting that train operators were careless with the lives of fellow employees, which probably discouraged track workers from effectively doing their jobs.

Ultimately, both the safety and maintenance problems can be traced to the fundamental flaws of socialized transportation. Where systems funded out of user fees would build no more than people are willing to pay for, political decisions led Washington and other regions to build hundreds of miles of expensive rail lines they can’t afford to maintain.

Where managers of systems funded out of user fees tend to do a better job at maintenance, political decisions failed to provide Metro with the money it needed to keep trains operating. Where user-fee driven systems learn quickly to motivate their employees to work safely and efficiently, political decisions put people on the Metro board who were more in love with their transit fantasies than the reality of managing more than 10,000 employees.

General manager Wiedefeld may be able to correct some of the maintenance problems by disrupting service over the next year, but it is unlikely that he will have the funds to fix all of them. Even if he had all the money he needed, it will take more than money to create a system that is more responsive to user needs than to contractors, unions, and politicians.