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June 23, 2009

Hey, WMATA! Stop spinning already

In the initial hours after the worst tragedy in its history, you could understand that the public relations shop at the Washington Metro wouldn't take the time to recount the full history of its fatal accidents over the years.

 But now it's the next morning -- and it's getting a little tiresome to read press releases pointing out that Monday's horrific collision was only the second fatal PASSENGER accident in Metro's history.

 "The only other time in Metrorail’s 33-year history that there were customer fatalities was in January 1982, when three people died as a result of a derailment between the Federal Triangle and Smithsonian Metrorail stations. The only other time that Metrorail had a collision was in 2004 when two trains collided at the Woodley Park/Zoo-Adams Morgan Metrorail station, in which there were some minor injuries," reads this morning's release.

Excuse me, what about the four incidents in which five WMATA employees were killed? One took place in 1996, one in 2005 and two others in 2006. With the nine people killed in Monday's crash -- an employee and eight passengers -- that brings the death toll on Metro since it opened to at least 17.

Trying to put forward any lesser number is pure spin -- maybe appropriate for a political campaign but appalling in the midst of tragedy.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 8:25 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: WMATA/D.C. Metro


Your NTSB background info in this mornings print edition is helpful in a time of mostly sensational reporting with little informational value. I wonder though, that nobody asked what happened to the block system that WAMATA has in place to my knowledge and which should prevent more than one train to be in any block at any time. The system would stop trains automatically should the operator fail to stop. This system might not have visual signals but communicate with "virtual" signals. These metro trains, to my knowledge, do not operate "on sight" like buses or light rail.

Well, they do specify customer related deaths. Don't know why they're trying to shrink the numbers, though -- 15 deaths over 33 years is still a good safety record compared to drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists, etc.

Sigh, you know, WMATA is still referring to yesterday's emergency quite neutrally as a "situation" in announcements throughout their system and on their website. That, despite the fact that all of the news rags available outside the stations are screaming about the accident, the response, the fatalities.

Wash and spin, Metro, wash and spin.

Does anyone know if the driver of the train was texting or talking on a cell phone?

I don't think that's been determined yet, and the train operator perished in the crash so they won't be able to inerview her.

It is not really spin, its just more relevant numbers. What does the death of a metro worker and riding the metro have in common? Nothing to the metro rider... they shouldn't be in a situation similar to the one's that only metro workers died in. As a rider, I would be more concerned with other passengers dying, since that is the situation I would be placed in.

Most of the articles I've read have mentioned both worker and passenger deaths... I don't really remember the worker deaths receiving national press like this event, so why should Metro concentrate on those deaths during press reports?

REPLY: WMATA ought to put all the information out there and let consumers of the facts decide which are relevant. For me, a transit system that fails to protect its employees is a potential danger to its passengers. It's about a culture of safety and a culture of disclosure. WMATA is failing on both counts.

Frankly, the NTSB (or at least the media presentation) claims of old rail cars that are not as structurally deficient is a red herring. The age of the rail cars has a limited relevancy to the problem that caused the catastrophe.

Even modern Metro cars would likely suffer severe destruction with casualties if one vehicle struck another at a high enough speed. We don't know what the speed of the moving train was yet, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was 30 mph.

I believe we must analyze the accident, determine what went wrong and for WMATA to try to ensure that is it doesn't happen again.

To Diane above, it doesn't matter what the motorman was doing, i.e. texting et al. The centrally controlled system is designed to stop the train as necessary regardless of the motorman's actions.

Nate Payer
The views expressed above are my own.

COMMENT: In this case, motorwoman.

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About Michael Dresser
Michael Dresser has been an editor, reporter and columnist with The Sun longer than Baltimore's had a subway. He's covered retailing, telecommunications, state politics and wine. Since 2004, he's been The Sun's transportation writer. He lives in Ellicott City with his wife and travel companion, Cindy.

His Getting There column appears on Mondays. Mike's blog will be a forum for all who are interested in highways, transit and other transportation issues affecting Baltimore, Maryland and the region.

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