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.