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January 26, 2010

What is it with the Washington Metro?

The deaths of two Washington Metro workers in an overnight incident near Rockville adds to a growing list of fatalities on a subway system that has been repeatedly criticized for iits safety lapses.

The deaths of the two track workers follow a bloody 2009 on the Washington subway tracks, which saw a series of employee fatalities as well as the worst single crash in the syatem's history -- a collision of two  trains on the Red Line last summer that killed eight passengers and a train operator.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which has  previously chastised Metro for its safety performance, quickly announced it would  investigate the double fatality, which occurred about 1:45 a.m. a few blocks from the Rockville Metro station.

A representative of the workers' union, Amalgamated Transit Workers Local 699, identified the two men as Jeffrey Garrard and Sung 0h, noth automatic train technicians and longtime Metro employees.

The safety issues raised by a series of crashes come at a time when the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is struggling with a leadership vacuum left by the resignation of its chief executive, a continuing controversy about how the system is governed and one of the worst budget crunches in the system's history. WMATA is holding a public meeting this week at which it will ask riders to choose from a menu of unpalatable options that include fare increases, service cuts and deferred capital spending.

Early this month, Metro chief executive John Catoe, who had arrived amid high hopes three years ago, announced plans  to leave the job this spring. His resignation came amid inhcreasing criticism of his inability to turn around Metro's safety performance.

Nine people were killed June 22 when a Metro Train on the Red Line failled to stop for a preceding train that had stopped on the tracks near Fort Totten.

Since then, five Metro employees, including this morning's victims, and one subcontractor have died on the job. In addition, three Metro employees were injured in a November incident in which one train rain into another in a railyard in Northern Virginia.

In an incident last month. a team of track inspectors was reported to have been nearly run over by a speeding train.

Under the circumstances, it would strain credibility to write off these occurrences as isolated events. There appears to be a severe cultural problem with safety in the Washington Metro system -- an issue the NTSB is virtually certain to address.


Posted by Michael Dresser at 10:30 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: WMATA/D.C. Metro


When you lay out the history of (shockingly recent) safety failures, it is clear that there is institutional failure at the WMATA. How that can be fixed, I have no idea, but it surely starts with overhauling the leadership.

It's even worse than you think. Here is something that happened yesterday. Apparently a driver missed a red light and part of the train went one way on a switch and part went another. WMATA made this out to be "not a big deal" but how can it NOT be a big deal?
What needs to happen is the Feds need to step in and take over control and establish a new governing body. The current one, made up of representatives from DC, MD and VA, has done nothing but hold the agency back for the last several years. If one region doesn't agree with a proposal, it fails and then nothing gets done. While I think Catoe could do more, his hands were also tied by the inability to make changes with this governing body.

Just first quantify my background, I have an Electronics Engineering degree and have many years observing WMATA metro. There are times the system stops/delays the train and there are no other trains visible for more than 500 feet. That is on the Red Line. Also I have been on the back car and had another train come so close that I could see the train's controller.
Another time, a driver came flying into the station and stopped so far into the next tunnel, that the system would not allow the doors to open.
-- I reported all this to the NTSB investigator.

Anytime that there are this many incidents than clearly there is a system that safety is not a big thing.Something will happen every ounce in a while no matter what,but bad things happening all the time is not normal.And what of that train that missed a red light: that is a big thing and also a train should not be going down two ways over a switch.This cant happen unless there is a track that did not shunt down as the train was on it or some other bad signal problem.

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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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