The story line Metro developed after Red Line crash in 2009 has unraveled
This summer, Metro riders will hear a lot about their transit system’s deficiencies, thanks to the many government and industry reviews stemming from — but not limited to — the Jan. 12 smoke incident at L’Enfant Plaza.
Hearing about the problems is discouraging enough. But riders will almost certainly experience them, as well.
For example, Metro isn’t running many eight-car trains, something that riders notice because of the extra crowding this creates. It’s taking longer than Metro managers had hoped to get the 100 4000-series cars back in service.
Also, the worst-performing cars in the fleet are scheduled for extended maintenance, which means no eight-car trains for the Red, Orange and Green lines on Mondays and Fridays this summer.
And pile this on: The many findings already are placing new repair and maintenance challenges on Metro crews, so look for extended hours of trains sharing tracks around work zones.
This summer, Metro management will not look like it’s in a leadership position. It’s going to look like the butler answering every pull of the master’s bell. But there are going to be many masters with to-do lists.
How did the transit system and its hundreds of thousands of customers get to this low point?
We were following a traditional American narrative of crisis and recovery. The crisis point was June 22, 2009, when nine people died in the Red Line crash. Monday is the sixth anniversary of the worst disaster in Metro’s history.
The recovery phase began with a National Transportation Safety Board investigation that found fault with the circuitry that helped control train movements. Metro launched a program to fix that problem and improve safety.
Six years later, that problem hasn’t been fixed. Most trains are operated manually, rather than under the automatic system they were designed for.
That’s one big issue in the recovery narrative. It has taken too long to fix one thing.
While Metro was working to restore automatic train operation, another main thread of the recovery narrative was developing: the rebuilding program. This was related to the theme of making the system safe, but it was broader. The Red Line crash had nothing directly to do with the condition of the escalators, or the station lighting or the track ties.
The rebuilding program was going to fix everything. Or so we thought. That’s how we understood the weekend track work program. We knew how the story was supposed to come out: pain now, gain later.
For a while, it looked like order had been restored in our commuting universe. Metro had a plan called Momentum, pointing toward a future beyond the fixes in which we would expand the rail system’s capacity and make the ride more comfortable for everyone. The Silver Line’s start-up made a portion of that future real, and it was exciting for the entire D.C. region.
Jan. 12 was a pivotal date, but the recovery story didn’t unravel all at once. Riders were growing impatient with the rebuilding plan. After a while, they couldn’t separate the rebuilding disruptions from the service disruptions caused by faulty doors, brakes and switches that they thought the rebuilding was going to fix.
Many riders wrote in to complain that things were going in the wrong direction. Instead of recovering from years of delayed maintenance, the system appeared to be less reliable, no matter what Metro’s performance statistics said.
With the death of a rider in January and the retirement of the general manager, Metro lost control of its own story. The next few chapters are going to be written by outsiders. Many of them — the investigators — have the best interests of the riders in mind. (I’m not so confident in the congressional vultures ready to dip into Metro’s financial bloodstream unless the agency shows more signs of life.)
Metro’s leaders will receive the reports, remind us that safety is their top priority, and execute the necessary work plans to fulfill the outsiders’ orders and recommendations.
For riders, this summer will feel a bit similar to the summer that followed the Red Line crash. It will be a time of disruption and uncertainty. But in some ways, it will feel worse than 2009. We were supposed to have climbed out of that hole.
The board that leads Metro can’t control what the investigators will say. It can only follow their directions.
It does retain one important power that it could exercise this summer: It could pick a new general manager to start developing a fresh, and more credible, story line — one that takes back control of the future.