Is the DC Metro Burning?

Back in the 1990s when I moved to the Washington DC area for graduate school, one of the things that most impressed me about the area was the subway system, the DC metro, that serviced the city along with the Virginia and Maryland suburbs. At that time, the system was relatively new; some of the lines were only a few years old, and even the oldest was only about 14 years old. The stations were modern and spacious, and the train cars also were roomy, with carpeted floors. The DC metro was so convenient that a classmate of mine commented that, even if he owned a Jaguar, he would still prefer to ride the metro every morning.

But that was over 20 years ago, and since then the DC metro has reportedly deteriorated badly. The metro, of course, is run by government, so it was inevitable that it would eventually fail. Over the years, the DC metro has reverted to the natural state of every government institution–a jobs program that barely pretends to serve the public (much like the public schools, for example). The DC metro bureaucracy is rife with corruption and incompetence. Employees know they can’t be fired no matter how lousy their performance, and the incentives are so perverse that the path to advancement primarily involves not rocking the boat by reporting abuses or safety problems. That’s right; the incentives are so perverse, that employees are better off NOT reporting safety issues.

With Metro’s budget chronically strained and reports of mismanagement coming more regularly than trains, interviews and internal records depict a likely root: an environment in which hardworking employees are actively excluded and those who rise are those willing to do the bare minimum — never causing a stir by flagging rampant safety violations, reporting malfeasance or proposing improvements.

A couple of years ago, a fire got started in a train tunnel, and incompetent employees bungled the emergency response by activating the wrong ventilation fans. The fans actually sucked smoke into a subway car filled with passengers.

Metro controllers in Landover reacted to the train operator’s report of smoke by turning on giant fans inside the L’Enfant Plaza station — behind the stationary train in the tunnel. The fans were activated in “exhaust mode,” Hart said, meaning they were sucking massive volumes of air in the direction of the station.

“This action pulled smoke” toward the station from the spot of the electrical meltdown deep in the tunnel, Hart said. As a result, the smoke was also moving in the direction of the stopped train, which was soon enveloped.

Then, at 3:24 p.m., according to Hart, the Landover controllers switched on another set of fans — inside a huge ventilation shaft about 1,100 feet in front of the train, near the source of the smoke. The shaft rises from the tunnel to the street.

But the fans in the shaft also were activated in exhaust mode, Hart said. This meant that the two sets of powerful fans, at both ends of the train, were sucking air in opposite directions, causing the smoke to linger in place, surrounding the train.

At least 200 passengers — most of them choking, many sickened and some growing panicked — waited more than 30 minutes to be evacuated by rescuers. One of the riders, Carol I. Glover, 61, of Alexandria, died of smoke inhalation, an autopsy showed.

So many fires happen on Metro that a Twitter feed called “Is Metro on Fire?” exists to warn passengers. Multiple fires were reported just last week.

As Reason magazine reports in the video below, Metro’s escalators are prone to dangerous malfunctions, and frequently break down due to lack of proper maintenance. The problem is that Metro in 1992 stopped using private contractors to repair and maintain the escalators and instead switched to using its own in-house mechanics. Metro justified the change by arguing, get this, that “government employees would do a better job for less money.” One can only hope that human civilization someday advances to the point where people reflexively respond to that particular argument with the full measure of derision that it deserves.

Last fall, Washington’s star pitcher, Max Scherzer, displayed some touching naivete after finding out that Metro refused to extend its operating hours so that fans could get home from a playoff game.

“God, I would hope to believe that playoff games here in D.C. would mean more than shutting down the lines for a couple hours,” Scherzer said last week during an appearence on a local sports talk radio program. “I mean, isn’t it a supply-and-demand issue? We have a supply of people that demand to use the line to go to the park. Why wouldn’t you want to meet that?”

Dude, rationally adjusting supply to meet demand is what happens in the private sector. This is government.

D.C. Escalator Nightmare

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