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Recommendation to replace 1000 series wasn't ignored

Jason Cherkis takes exception to my argument that the NTSB was being too harsh on the WMATA Board in its report yesterday.

Photo by ep_jhu on Flickr.

I argued that it wasn't realistic for the WMATA Board to "psychically divine" that the safety reports the GM was providing them were omitting all the track signal alarms they were getting every day but ignoring.

Cherkis says that WMATA ignored many NTSB reports: a 1996 recommendation to replace the 1000 series railcars and to reinforce the 2000, 3000, and 4000 series, and another recommendation to do the same in 2006.

Cherkis writes,

The board needed no such psychic powers. All they had to do was read previous NTSB reports. The same reports that they ignored over and over again.
First off, assuming everything the NTSB said is true, which we have no reason to doubt, I don't think they were being too harsh on the safety staff. And as for the Board, many of you made some good points. It probably would be better to have a special safety committee of the Board instead of lumping it in with customer service. The Board's mission statement should include safety. And they probably could have been pushing staff a little harder before and after the crash.

However, it's important to distinguish two different elements of the crash. One is the signal system. The other is the railcars.

The signal system should have worked. It's inexcusable that it didn't. It's inexcusable that the NTSB could find all these problems with it but WMATA could not. It's inexcusable that a lot of people seem to have ignored the fact that the systems were generating errors and nobody was looking into why.

The 1000-series railcars should also be replaced. But can we really say the Board ignored the NTSB's recommendation? Actually, they spent a decade fighting for federal and local funding to replace the cars. This year, that funding finally came through, and WMATA is replacing the cars. Sure, it would have been nice to replace them earlier, but it wasn't like the money was sitting in a bank account gathering interest.

In lambasting of the Board yesterday, the NTSB sounded petulant that WMATA hadn't dropped everything to replace half its railcar fleet and magically come up with the money to do so. It's too bad they didn't follow that NTSB recommendation, but that NTSB recommendation was wildly unrealistic. Nonetheless, leaders spent 15 years on it and are now close to achieving it.

But I still object to the NTSB's continued focus on crashworthiness of railcars, their pressure to replace or revamp the 2000 through 4000 series, and their peevish attitude that WMATA hasn't done that already. The money isn't there. The achievable safety gains revolve around avoiding crashes, not rebuilding cars around handling crashes.

An obsession with crash survivability, instead of crash avoidance, already led the FRA to wreck intercity passenger rail in the US. Sure, new cars should be safer, and WMATA should replace ones that are unsafe as quick as they can, but despite running all these supposedly unsafe cars, Metro still had a fraction of the injury or fatality rate of highways. We might demand safer cars to be built going forward, but we don't demand that every driver on the road immediately replace his or her private car with the fanciest side curtain airbags on the luxury models.

Could the Board have done better? Yes. Should we demand better in the future? Absolutely. Did they just ignore NTSB recommendations around railcars? No, they pushed for 15 years to find money to satisfy that particular recommendation. And ironically, one of the only reasons the feds even came through with the money for new railcars was because of the crash. If it hadn't happened, WMATA might still be lobbying to replace the 1000 series.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Thanks for highlighting the two real issues here: 1) the signaling and train contol system, and 2) the crashworthiness of WMATA rail cars.

For me, 1) is far more important than 2), because without a failure in 1), 2) will almost never come into play.

That said, framing the entire thing as a defense of the Board also clouds these two issues. Yes, the board has worked to replace the 1000 series. At the same time, I don't have a problem with them getting flogged by the NTSB on this issue - they have still presided over a systemic lack of safety culture.

by hmmmm on Jul 28, 2010 9:08 am • linkreport

That struck me in the reporting as well. It's easy to say "Replace the 1000 series car". To do that you either need to spend billions of dollars or drastically cut service. "Petulant" is the exact right word for their attitude on this one particular item.

It's almost like saying "too many people are dying of cancer. Fix that".

by TimK on Jul 28, 2010 9:14 am • linkreport

I hate to say it but if the focus is on the signal system and the cars then we have missed the most basic problem with safety in any system. While those two issues must be looked at and fixed with better systems and cars, those efforts will be wasted if they are spent on an organization that ignores warning signals, not indefinite "signs" but real system warnings.

This problem is rooted in the much harder to address issue of culture and organizational values.

by Anonymous on Jul 28, 2010 9:29 am • linkreport

I've always found that the NTSB does very little editorializing in their work. Did they even use the word "ignore" regarding the 1000 series replacement recommendation? That would imply willful abandonment of the recommendation. They said there was a failure to replace or retrofit the cars, and that is a fair statement of fact. And it was a contributing factor in this accident. You're really coming off as too hyper-sensitive over a report that looks like an unimpeachable collection of findings and statements.

And this business about airbags and luxury cars, we do not mandate that everybody has the best equipment. But we pay higher insurance premiums if our cars do not have all the bells and whistles. I bet Metro is paying higher premiums for running less-than-safest cars.

by Lou on Jul 28, 2010 9:30 am • linkreport

"An obsession with crash survivability, instead of crash avoidance"

That is one of the main problems we will carry on seeing in US in public transportation unless there is a huge policy change that takes place.

I strongly believe that the tin boxes we see everywhere in the world are no-more or no-less dangerous than the Rohr railcars that are being lambasted by the NTSB. It is therefore more important in my opinion to change the safety culture and replace the failing safety systems by something more effective and more suitable to metro style operations. This will be not only cheaper in the short run but also in the long run, as another similar crash involving new trains would by nature lead fatalities.

What everybody wants is no fatalities & casualties, not new shiny new trains.

by Vincent Flament on Jul 28, 2010 9:40 am • linkreport

David A. -- why do you insist that the NTSB need to factor in the fact WMATA lacks the funds to provide safety? NTSBÂ’s focus is safety -- pure and simple.

While you present the argument that WMATA lacks the funds to do this, if NTSB soft-pedaled their report, then WMATA itself might lack the "ammo" to get the funds to improve safety and itself might negilect spending money on safety.

I *want* a government watchdog, doggedly saying these things aren't safe -- even if the organization doesn't have the funds -- yes, I want a NIH NCI saying, fix cancer even if it will take years.

WMATA needs to examine its budget closely, and consider *DELAYING* the Silver Line until it can get itself up to running safely. Growth at the expense of being safe is stupid, reckless, and endangers us all.

Shame, shame, and again SHAME on GGW for not recognizing your need an idealist watchdog focused on improving things -- after all, is that the function YOU provide in a similar area for WMATA? The NTSB should always focus on safety. It is its mission -- you clearly forgot this.

Making things work given the scathing report -- that's for WMATA and the politics of this region to resolve. NTSB is the watchdog for safety.

Again -- I usually like GGW but I am *DISMAYED* that GGW would somehow thing dogged focus on improving safety was a bad thing. GGW has frequent articles about bike trails this and trolley car this -- those all cost money too. May you never get in an accident yourself!

And I also earnestly suggest that the Silver Line be delayed indefinitely until the SAFETY of the existing Metro lines being up to a sufficient level where we're not recklessly gambling with our health or lives when we ride.

by GGW forgets NTSB Purpose on Jul 28, 2010 9:42 am • linkreport

Metro continues to refuse to retire them immediately. They don't need to wait 4 years until the new cars come in. They should be removed right now. Also, they need at least 700 new cars to replace the 2000-4000 cars, as 428 is not enough. Metro wants to rehab the 4000 series like they did the 2000-3000 instead of replacing them. The 4000 series were built in 1988.

by Davin Peterson on Jul 28, 2010 9:43 am • linkreport

@Davin Peterson:
What do you propose they do in the mean time if they remove the 1000 series today?
20 min headways in peak?
2 car trains during rush?

And even then, the underlying cause of the crash (maybe not the fatalities, but the cause of the crash) is still the signal system, which isn't corrected. So all removing the 1000 series has done in this hypothetical situation is destroy any level of service Metro has now and maybe increased the chances of getting on a car with AC (though good luck finding room to board one of the few cars left).

by kidincredible on Jul 28, 2010 9:52 am • linkreport

The 'lack of money' excuse is not valid. If you don't have money to replace the railcars, then you have to address the problem in another way -- slow down trains, take some or all of the dangerous cars out of service, start charging higher fares and dedicate the extra funds raised to replacing the dangerous cars, give small flyer handouts to all riders letting them know that the NTSB has said the 1000-series cars are not safe, lobby seriously for more funding for replacement of the cars -- there were lots of things WMATA could have done -- instead, they said, 'well, no money, we tried, what comes will come, and when some people die, we will finally get our funding, and we'll say we tried and folks ignored us so this is what you get because this is what you deserve.'

and lives will be ruined -- families and dreams shattered -- and the people in power will always have their defenders, and not enough people will be looking out for riders and the people who are attending funerals and trying to piece their lives back together after a preventable tragedy.

people desere to be sitting in jail -- five years each for all the board members -- that's the least we should expect in a civilized society. People need to be held accountable. We don't need perfect accountability, but finger-wagging is not enough -- we need people to fear real consequences if their negligence results in innocent lives lost.

by Peter Smith on Jul 28, 2010 9:53 am • linkreport

"An obsession with crash survivability, instead of crash avoidance, already led the FRA to wreck intercity passenger rail in the US."

What on earth is wrong with you David? Did Craig get to you? WHEN ON EARTH DID IT BECOME A DECISION BETWEEN THESE? BOTH should be maximised.

by varun on Jul 28, 2010 9:54 am • linkreport

Darwin, do you realize your suggestion to retire the cars will increase fatalities overall? If metro immeidatly retires the 1000 series cars, they will have to cut back significantly on service which means less people will ride metro and therefore drive (much less safe than riding metro). I have no trouble believing that the net result would be an increase in death due to car crashes every month equivelent to the number of deaths suffered in this accident.

If you feel the trains are unsafe then stop riding. Me I will continue to ride rather than exposing myself to the greater risk of traveling more often by car.

by nathaniel on Jul 28, 2010 9:55 am • linkreport

Davin Peterson,

Even if they had the money to buy the extra cars, they wouldn't be ready for years. Removing the exiting cars right now would result in shorter trains and/or less frequent ones. In a system that is already nearing capacity on some lines and stations.

From a strictly safety standpoint, I'm not sure overcrowding the platforms or driving more people to drive is the better option. As a daily metro user, I'd rather take the small chance a 1000 series car I'm in will collapse on me in a catastrophic accident than wait an extra ten minutes I try to go somewhere.

by TimK on Jul 28, 2010 9:56 am • linkreport

@Davin Replacing that many cars would bankrupt metro, and is, as David mentions, completely unnecessary. Head-on train collisions are ugly no matter how sturdy the cars are.

Accident prevention is a far more effective strategy, and we should be hounding Metro for failing to keep its signaling systems in a state of good repair far more loudly than any objections we have over the design flaws of the older railcars.

Although I get the need for a government watchdog, that watchdog needs to avoid a "Boy who cried wolf" scenario. The signaling problems are a far more severe issue than the 1000-series' telescoping issues, and the hubbub about the new railcars is distracting us from the real issue at hand.

by andrew on Jul 28, 2010 9:58 am • linkreport

It reminds me of this story:
"Compared with the average number of automotive fatalities for the same months from 1996 through 2000, an additional 353 people died in car crashes in October, November, and December of 2001, says psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. Surplus road fatalities following the terrorist attacks [on 9/11] thus exceeded the 266 fatalities on the four ill-fated aircraft."

I find it weird that everyone has so much rage at the 1000 series cars still being utilized but seemingly no rage at the fact that the signal system hasn't been corrected. I would rather the 1000 series be kept in service for the next twenty years and the money for the 300 replacement 7000 series cars be spent fixing the signal system.
(Side benefit of that correction? Back to ATC control and better headways/service)

by kidincredible on Jul 28, 2010 10:03 am • linkreport

Yes, yes, yes. The problem with the NTSB approach is that (a) it is a reactive, not proactive and systematic, analysis and (b) it doesn't prioritize recommendations by likelihood and severity of the effects of a failure mode and the opportunity cost of fixing the failure mode. This is called Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA), and is central to safety, quality and performance management.

Instead, NTSB just reacts to the worst accidents and comes up with a list of recommendations to fix failure modes regardless of opportunity cost. The tone, as a result, is one of petulance as David says.

The root cause here is the lack of good safety analysis (hazard analysis, root cause analysis, FMEA) that results in a list of actions to take prioritized by the severity and likelihood of consequences and opportunity cost of not taking action. The FTA was more on target:

A hazard management program fosters hazard identification and analysis, which provide the rail transit agency an opportunity to proactively eliminate hazards before an accident. For WMATA, however, its representatives stated that due to a lack of resources, a formal hazard analysis is not routinely performed on system-wide issues. Furthermore, WMATA personnel also pointed out that WMATAÂ’s Board of Directors rarely requests formal hazard analysis or other information on how operating, maintenance or budget decisions may have safety impacts or how the agency is addressing safety-related concerns. This is exemplified by the fact that at the time of the audit, WMATA and TOC representatives were unable to identify the agencyÂ’s top ten safety concerns or hazards.

by Ken Archer on Jul 28, 2010 10:06 am • linkreport

Agreed that signaling and train control are paramount going forward. While a great deal has been made about the 1000 series rail cars and there replacement, how much of the FY 2011 capital budget has been allocated to improvement of signaling and train control. What is the estimated cost of rehab of the train control system? What is the plan for correction? Operating components in the track bed are hardly the kinds of items the politicos can have a ribbon cutting or media event over. The region and the federal government must commit to providing adequate capital support to the Metro system. Three hundred million is not enough unfortunately. While all this is happening other components and systems are being neglected. The system is facing severe capacity constraints which cannot be dealt with independently by competing jurisdictions.

by Interested on Jul 28, 2010 10:07 am • linkreport

I'd like to point out that the 1000 series issue was the last one listed in the contributing factor paragraph in the release that is up on the NTSB site right now. The statement is pretty clear about the signaling system being the most important and primary cause. We're only talking about the 1000 series car issue because some people could not abide by the NTSB bringing it up at all.

by Lou on Jul 28, 2010 10:11 am • linkreport

The root problem here is the lack of any ability to make any critical assessment of risk. Whenever anyone points out something is "unsafe" we have a knee-jerk reaction against that thing, often taking even riskier actions to avoid the thing we think is unsafe.

Some have argued the NTSB is only responsible for improving safety, not for making cost-benefit analysis. But if that is the case, why not shut down Metro entirely? That would achieve the no injury/no fatality goal of perfect safety. This is the essentially the recommendation of GGW Forgets (no Silver line until Metro is "safe"). Of course, that is a ridiculous solution. This is the reason the NTSB was not given regulatory authority, and why it should not have regulatory authority.

Even if all the NTSB recommendations were immediately implemented, there will be another crash on Metro. But if none of the recommendations (past or present) are ever implemented, Metro will remain safer that walking, biking, and driving.

The Board is the body that must balance the demands of actually running a usable service with the resources that are available. We can only hope that they are smart enough to make necessary safety improvements without significantly degrading service.

by Stanton Park on Jul 28, 2010 10:19 am • linkreport

I find this series of posts odd, but this is the least odd one. Faint praise.

The signaling problems, to me, are beyond a firing offense. Catoe should have been fired the day this came to light. It may not be his fault, but you need some public accountability.

David is absolutely right that the focus on the 1000 series trains seems a bit off. Given that replacing them was more of a budget issue than a safety issue. and saying FRA regulations killed intercity passenger rail is overstating the case. I'd agree we have too much of a focus on survivability with transit. Intercity rail died because freight was a better business proposition, our railways are privately owned, and outside a few select city pairs driving or flying is a better option.

Given this focus on safety, can anyone explain school buses to me? They never seemed safe, and we put kids in them everyday. We also put idiots to work driving them.

And I wonder how survivable intercity buses are. I can't help but think BoltBus or whatever is cutting a lot of corners.

by charlie on Jul 28, 2010 10:21 am • linkreport

For those interested, here are some resources for examining how irrational and dysfunctional our brains are at things like analyzing risk, or unbiasedly assessing almost anything:

The fact of it is, the media puts the Metro car issue front and center and that triggers the fear mechanism in us. It's akin to how the media goes gaga over a child getting kidnapped (hours of coverage, breaking into sitcoms with updates, etc), but barely gives 10 seconds to a fatal accident. After that, our brains get wired that the kidnapping is a MUCH larger danger that we should fear, and we no longer send our kids anywhere without supervision, yet, we'll strap them into a car and drive on freeways where thousands die every year just so that they won't be alone and maybe be kidnapped.

How much media coverage has there been on the signalizing issue? How much on replacement cars? It's no wonder why everyone's clamoring for replacement cars but not for revamping the signals.

by kidincredible on Jul 28, 2010 10:28 am • linkreport

An earlier quote noted, "WMATA top management seems to have tragically ignored safety warnings and potential problems for years. The systems generated 8000 "alarms" from track circuit errors per week, but according to the NTSB, WMATA safety officials ignored these problems because they assumed the system was "failsafe."

The system was failsafe -- it sent 8,000 signals that were ignored! Even the Google wonder got that, but David you must stop apologizing for Neil Albert and Jim Graham -- they need to be thrown under the train given their positions and responsibilities in the city and as WMATA Board members. The Board knows a transportation system like Metro can't operate on the cheap and work efficiently, safely or on time. If the escalators and elevators are examples of effective mainenance, the system may be nearing melt down. The NTSB should be harsh given the leadership failure on all levels. WMATA top management, and that includes the Board, is in need of federal oversight to ensure they hear and react to warning signals in the future.

by Bear on Jul 28, 2010 10:31 am • linkreport

Bear: I thought I made clear that the 8000 alarms were totally inexcusable. I just don't think the Board members knew about it. Remember, the moment the Post reported that the TOC was not getting access to tracks, the Board came down on WMATA staff like a ton of bricks.

by David Alpert on Jul 28, 2010 10:33 am • linkreport

@charlie: I'm not sure why you think school buses are not safe. Some people think school buses are not safe because they don't have seat belts. They do have seat belts for the driver. In tests with seat belts on buses, they found kids were less safe with them because the kids used seat belt buckles as weapons instead of wearing them. Injuries were reduced by not including seat belts but including other safety features that would not work in cars such as high-back padded seats.

School buses are actually eight times safer than cars, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Bright yellow paint, high profiles, and flashing lights make them stand out from other traffic, they generally run more on local streets and at lower speeds instead of freeways, and they are constructed to keep the kids safe in the unusual event of a crash.

by Stanton Park on Jul 28, 2010 10:39 am • linkreport

"An obsession with crash survivability, instead of crash avoidance, already led the FRA to wreck intercity passenger rail in the US."
What on earth is wrong with you David? Did Craig get to you? WHEN ON EARTH DID IT BECOME A DECISION BETWEEN THESE? BOTH should be maximised.

It became a decision between these two things when our intercity trains began to weigh more than tanks, given that our "crashworthiness" rankings are largely determined by weight.

Unlike European railroads, who are typically able to buy railcars "off the shelf", American railcars typically need to be custom-built to the arbitrary safety specifications of the FRA. Last time I checked, there are no longer any manufacturers willing to construct diesel multiple-units for the American market.

by andrew on Jul 28, 2010 11:25 am • linkreport

I see no reason to believe that different rail cars would have changed the outcome of the accident. I want to see crash test dummies and serious studies as proof. Otherwise it's all talk.


by Kaleel on Jul 28, 2010 11:30 am • linkreport

"I thought I made clear that the 8000 alarms were totally inexcusable. I just don't think the Board members knew about it."

Not knowing isn't an excuse. The Board is responsible for setting up a reporting mechanism that brings such things to their attention.

I agree with the substance of this post, but I still think there needs to be a federal government takeover of WMATA. The current governance model has proven to be a complete failure and it is, after all, an interstate transportation system.

by Phil on Jul 28, 2010 11:36 am • linkreport

No matter who's in charge, you can't implement safety recommendations without adequate funding. The use of a different company for the signaling mechanism despite engineers' preferences was probably a cost-saving measure.

by Omar on Jul 28, 2010 12:50 pm • linkreport

"An obsession with crash survivability, instead of crash avoidance, already led the FRA to wreck intercity passenger rail in the US."
What on earth is wrong with you David? Did Craig get to you? WHEN ON EARTH DID IT BECOME A DECISION BETWEEN THESE? BOTH should be maximised.

Actually what should be minimized is accidental death associated with travel. In the face of the limited available resources, the question then becomes what are the most efficient means of doing this. International experience has crash avoidance to be more efficient way to reduce accidental death than crash survivability.

In addition, since travel modes differ radically in terms of their accident risk profile - rail travel is by some measures as much as two orders of magnitude safer than car travel - mode share is an important factor. Many believe that FRA crash-worthiness requirements have been counterproductive because they have made rail-travel expensive to provide and thus limited the availability (and raised the price) of this relatively safe mode, encouraging travelers to use the more dangerous car-based alternative.

by egk on Jul 28, 2010 12:58 pm • linkreport

@David Alpert

You say "I thought I made clear that the 8000 alarms were totally inexcusable. I just don't think the Board members knew about it." I can only think of two possible explanations for the board being unaware of the alarms: gross incompetence or willful ignorance. In either case the board members were not preforming their oversight duties to a reasonable standard and should face the consequences.

I doubt Tony Hayward personally knew about the corner cutting that led to the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon but as the head of the company he was still responsible for its safe operation and was fired. WMATA upper management (including the board) should be held to the same standard (except without Hayward's golden parachute.)

by Jacob on Jul 28, 2010 1:20 pm • linkreport

The bottom line is that the 1000 series cars are 35 years old and have reached the end of their useful life. I consider the old cars' crash worthiness second to having a reliable system. Applying the same logic, the 4000 series cars need to be rehabbed as soon as possible. Finally, I find most of the comments on here coming from people in an ivory tower with such suggestions as removing 1/3 of the fleet and waiting another 20 years to replace the 1000 series. I'd take Metro's safety record to driving any day.

by Jeff on Jul 28, 2010 1:32 pm • linkreport

I didn't literally mean keeping the 1000 series around for 20 more years, I just meant it as hyperbole to emphasize how I'd rather WMATA spend the money on fixing the signals.

by kidincredible on Jul 28, 2010 1:38 pm • linkreport

Darwin, do you realize your suggestion to retire the cars will increase fatalities overall?

can you prove this? that is, can you provide any evidence that this even stands a remote possibility of being true?

If metro immediately retires the 1000 series cars, they will have to cut back significantly on service which means less people will ride metro and therefore drive (much less safe than riding metro). I have no trouble believing that the net result would be an increase in death due to car crashes every month equivalent to the number of deaths suffered in this accident.

i do have trouble believing that the deaths go up when people abandon transit for some other mode of transport which may or may not be driving.

and we're not talking about the deaths of anonymous people -- we're talking about which is more dangerous for people -- riding a transit line with faulty signaling equipment but solid (non-1000-series) train-cars, or...dealing with their commute in some other way (new and/or additional 'transit' service which may or may not be rail- or bus-based, working off-peak hours, driving, bus, bike, walk, taxi, telecommute, reduced work week, shuttle bus, move their home closer to work, and consider that WMATA could reset peak pricing to more accurately reflect the now more limited capacity which would free up peak-time seats).

so, let's figure it out. someone do some reasonable analysis. you need to show that reducing service on a transit line will increase deaths for the commuters that would otherwise have been on that transit line -- that would mean that those commuters staying on the train were actually safer than whatever alternative(s) they choose. we all know the concepts of 'induced demand' and it's opposite, 'disappearing traffic' -- they exist, they're real.

and we'll probably not find an exact match of that situation, but we have the entire history of the modern world to go on, so somebody has surely looked at something like this before. train, bus, whatever the 'transit line' is or was --prove your 'do not reduce service or else everyone will die when they are forced to start driving' hypothesis to a reasonable degree.

there may even be a different answer to the question of 'overall public health' -- that is, in a simple situation, say driving vs. walking vs. biking vs. transit -- which mode is safer is 100% of people had to do it? this would be completely ignoring the qualitative difference between controlling one's own destiny by walking/biking/driving/whatever, and putting your life in someone else's hands by taking transit.

there will be no pure comparisons -- all i want to see is some reasonable analysis. i've already guessed in a previous comment that the difference would be effectively zero. if you disagree, make your case.

the analysis does not have to include, say, the potential of being carjacked vs. the potential of being robbed or assaulted or sexually harassed on the train -- we can keep it to either just deaths, and if you're feeling up to it, you can include physical injuries.

i'd also say that lots of research we see here at GGW is counter-intuitive.

i think driving is remarkably safe for drivers, and is getting safer all the time. if you believe, as i do, that cars are a cancer that need to be stricken from the earth, then you should be interested in super-high quality, super-safe transit -- no excuses.

by Peter Smith on Jul 28, 2010 1:46 pm • linkreport

Further up, I linked an article that said after 9/11, fatalities on roadways nationwide increased by more than the number of people killed on the planes in the attack.
Not a perfect example, but similar.

by kidincredible on Jul 28, 2010 1:53 pm • linkreport


being honest here -- i don't see how that is similar at all. i am familiar with that type of stuff from reading, I think, the Freakonomics blog -- whenever there's a suicide, there are increases in the surrounding areas of more suicides and fatal car crashes, etc., but i'm not sure how that applies.

by Peter Smith on Jul 28, 2010 2:07 pm • linkreport

It's pretty related in that after 9/11 less people flew. Maybe they all didn't switch to auto, but enough did to increase roadway fatalities year-to-year by a larger amount than died on the 9/11 planes. There's also statistical evidence to suggest that the increase settled back toward pre-9/11 numbers in the following years as people returned to flying.

Maybe I'm missing your argument, and if I am, I apologize, but I think that's at least slightly related to switching from Metro to other commuting means.

by kidincredible on Jul 28, 2010 2:19 pm • linkreport

Well said, David. It's time for the NTSB to do a little bit of research on what the word "cause" actually means. Telescoping trains did not cause the accident. A bad switch and possibly negligent train operator did.

by aaa on Jul 28, 2010 3:03 pm • linkreport

@Jacob: +1,000,0000

The WMATA Board needs to be fired. They have simply failed to do their jobs and as a result of either their negligence, incompetence, or whatever reason, people have died. They need to go. Period.

Metro's upper management needs to be fired. They failed to report safety violations and impeded the TOC's ability to do their jobs. People died and people's safety has been - and still is - compromised. They need to go. Period.

Metro mid-management and front-line staff that suck at their jobs also need to be fired. Accepting widespread mediocrity needs to end.

Regardless of the apologia being put forth on how WMATA really isn't so bad, they mean well, they're doing the best they can, etc., people just ain't buying it.

Until WMATA starts firing people and showing it is actually trying to change its bureaucratic culture, it has no credibility on much of anything.

by Fritz on Jul 28, 2010 3:06 pm • linkreport


What does a switch have to do with this?

Likewise, how is this the operator's fault? The operator depressed the emergency brake as soon as the train was fully in view - there's nothing more she could have done.

by Alex B. on Jul 28, 2010 3:07 pm • linkreport

He likely meant signal instead of switch.
Agreed that the operator did nothing wrong (in either the lead train or the following train, both were following protocol for operation)

by kidincredible on Jul 28, 2010 3:14 pm • linkreport

Yes, signal. The animation shows that several seconds elapsed between the time the second train came into "full view" and the operator hit the break, so the operator did indeed do something wrong by not hitting the brake in time. I don't understand why that aspect of the crash is getting whitewashed.

by aaa on Jul 28, 2010 4:02 pm • linkreport

"The WMATA Board needs to be fired. They have simply failed to do their jobs and as a result of either their negligence, incompetence, or whatever reason, people have died. They need to go. Period."

Agreed. In Berlin last summer, a safety issue was discovered with the majority of S-Bahn cars; this resulted in major service reductions while the issue was fixed. In response, the entire board of the S-Bahn resigned. And that was for an incident where no one died. This is how a quality transit system maintains a culture of safety.

by Phil on Jul 28, 2010 4:17 pm • linkreport

"Yes, signal. The animation shows that several seconds elapsed between the time the second train came into "full view" and the operator hit the break, so the operator did indeed do something wrong by not hitting the brake in time. I don't understand why that aspect of the crash is getting whitewashed."

The animation was a little misleading on that point. On the real track, the sightlines are not so clear. Besides, even if she had applied the brakes at the earliest possible moment, there was no preventing the crash. That's why the operator was cleared of all fault.

by Phil on Jul 28, 2010 4:20 pm • linkreport

@Peter: I'll bite. Let's do the math.

Metrorail trains carry about 1.5 billion passenger-miles annually. Series 1000 cars are about 1/4 of the railcars Metrorail has, so let's say that they carry about 375 million passenger-miles annually. If all of these passenger-miles were instead traveled in a car, that would give us an additional 340 million vehicle-miles traveled annually (at 1.1 passenger/vehicle). Fatality rates have been about 1.5 per 100 million vehicle miles in recent years, giving us an 5 expected additional traffic fatalities per year. Multiplying out, this means that about 65 deaths by auto accident didn't happen in the years since the initial NTSB recommendation because WMATA didn't retire the 1000 series railcars then.

That is a 'worst-case' estimate, of course. Clearly reducing capacity by 1/4 doesn't reduce ridership by 1/4. On the other hand, since people who drive travel about twice as much on average as those who take transit, each rail-mile not traveled probably translates into nearly 2 car-miles. So the estimate is probably in the ballpark, and WMATA has likely saved about 50 lives by keeping the 1000 series in service.

by egk on Jul 28, 2010 4:45 pm • linkreport


OK, i gotcha. yeah - that example works.

basically, we got a mode shift from flying (relatively safe) to driving (relatively not safe) -- and, if only looking at the deaths of the occupants of the vehicles, then that mode shift was detrimental to public health, and it happened in only (a short) 3 months - if looking longer-term, it could be even worse.

i would say that constitutes some evidence that 'the public health' overall would be harmed by reducing the capacity of Metro trains.

If you feel the trains are unsafe then stop riding. Me I will continue to ride rather than exposing myself to the greater risk of traveling more often by car.

it'd be interesting to see if people _did_ stop riding after the red line tragedy -- maybe by looking at the driving death statistics for the GGW area in the three months following the crash, and then compare that to Metro ridership numbers. maybe i'll try to find some numbers (i don't have great inet access outside work at the moment, so that research might have to wait a bit.).

WMATA has likely saved about 50 lives by keeping the 1000 series in service.

i appreciate the estimate, but i don't buy it, even as a very rough, worst case estimate. there are many major problems with it:

one, we assume that we have to retire the 1000-series cars instead of slowing trains down. if we think that slowing trains down will lose riders, thus driving up driving numbers, then lets talk stats on that scenario, too.

second, you're assuming a perfect/100% conversion of people who ride the train to people who drive just because 1/4 of the trains went out of service - i expect the actual conversion might be something like 20% - most others would just continue riding Metro trains. the bulk of others would switch to bus and shuttle services - either public or private transit.

right off the top that takes us down to 1 statistical extra death per year -- a number awfully close to zero.

third, this is assuming that WMATA does nothing at all to compensate for the loss of those train-cars, assuming we take them off the tracks immediately. no shifting of off-peak trains/capacity to peak trains/capacity -- no extra (express) bus services -- no de-congestion pricing -- nada. maybe that's likely given WMATA's incompetence/negligence, but I'd have to think even they would have to do _something_ to make up for lost capacity. in the aftermath of the Red Line crash, bus bridges were instituted, other trains were more crowded, etc. -- i.e. the system adjusted to some extent.

I'm glad we got some numbers to talk about finally, and i really appreciate the effort. right now, i'd say there are two statements I and/or others are not comfortable with:

1) If we bash WMATA (at all, or unfairly, or too much, or whatever), then people will stop riding transit, and

2) People who stop riding transit will drive instead and the area death rate will skyrocket (or go up too much, or more significantly than if we kept 'bad' cars in service, or whatever).

I think we have good reason to be skeptical of both of these statements.

also, all the talk of how dangerous driving is (for drivers) seems a bit disingenuous to me. do transit advocates really give a hoot about reducing driving danger? no. at least i don't -- not in relation to how much i care about preventing pedestrian and biker deaths. we like to quote auto death stats because it looks good for transit because transit is safer. we don't necessarily cheer on car pileups and carnage, but how many posts, for instance, has GGW run about reducing auto deaths? 'Distracted driving' and 'speeding' have gotten some attention here and in some other places, but it's often in the context of the pain/death it causes for walkers and bikers -- as opposed to looking out for drivers, who are human beings, too.

so, part of the answer, to me, is to start bashing the DOT/drivers/highway designs more instead of bashing WMATA/transit less. and we can do it in a way that is not tasteless -- 'oh, 9 people were killed on the train, but the train is still safer than driving!'

by Peter Smith on Jul 28, 2010 5:59 pm • linkreport

To David's point, there is a certainly level of hilarity in the Car/Train comparison.

Metro gets lambasted for old rail cars that decrease survivability.

Meanwhile, I've always been impressed with how the auto companies managed to turn the cold war nuclear doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction into a marketing plan for SUVs. If you remmeber when they first launched, the ads were all about effect, "You better buy our Yukon...or your wimpy family sedan might get hit by someone driving one of our Yukons! And then your kids would be crushed! Buy a Yukon!" Inverted survivability...put a car dangerous to everyone else on the market, and then use the danger it poses to sell more of them.

If the same rules were applied to cars, roads would have a maximum 45 mph speed limit, and cars would restricted to the lightweight ones with carbon framing can nerf foam style padding. There actually are designs for that...infinitely survivable if vehicles were all restircted to it...they bounce off each other.

But we have a cultural blind spot on cars.

by John on Jul 28, 2010 7:05 pm • linkreport

For all those arguing that Metro is less risky than other modes of transportation. Great -- can we see some numbers?

And regardless, if an airline said they'd fly you across the ocean -- but oh by the way, we're not providing any life jackets on the plane in the unlikely event of a water landing -- would you go sure, that's okay?

After all flying is safer than driving right?

And a water landing is very unlikely, right?

So why spend the money on life jackets in the unlikely event of a water landing, right?

... that's what your strawman arguments are akin too.

NTSB found that the telescopic cars killed or resulted in significant injuries compared to the other cars involved with the crash. That's a problem and an inequity that could have been prevented with modern cars.

I'd want airlines to be grounded if they decided to "save money" by not doing life jackets and other measures. And would someone explain to me again why no Silver Line until we have the new cars is a bad idea please?

Please stop drinking the "we can't ask Metro to spend money on safety" Kool-Aid. Again, may you never lose a limb or loved one to such an accident yourselves!

by If Metro Was An Airline on Jul 28, 2010 9:27 pm • linkreport

p.s. For all of you saying "well cars are more dangerous"

I seriously hope you wake up to the stupidity of your protect Metro arguments -- you're like a family of an alcoholic explaining their alcoholism by saying "they can't afford to go to rehab"

Remember: this is not a tit-for-tat argument that if cars do it, why can't WMATA. This is just basic safety. The 1000 cars killed more people in the crash than the other cars did. Lives could have been SAVED and injuries LESSENED.

To say we can't have WMATA go backrupt shows how insensitive you all are to human lives (or how enraptured with WMATA that you've lost your humanity).

Instead of being Metro-Crash-Like-An-Alcoholic-Enablers you should be getting angry and upset that DC, VA, and MD spend money on NEW RAILS when the safety of the existing system is bad. You should be getting update that NEW RAILS are adding to things already unsafe and over-capacity, instead of the money to resolve the safety and capacity problems.

You get upset that VA, MD, and DC add new roads without thinking about capacity AND safety -- so why aren't you upset that METRO is being funded to do the same -- expand without first remedying capacity AND safety.

I normally like GGW, but you're being Transport-Hypocrites on this issue.

by If Metro Was An Airline on Jul 28, 2010 9:34 pm • linkreport

@Peter Smith

Your argument is pointed in the wrong direction. Government exists to try and provide attempted equities to the public and with the crash there was an inequity in terms of who was at risk of severe injury or death.

Building on "If Metro Was an Airline', if airlines only make safety features available in First Class and not in Economy, that would be an inequity and unfair.

In this case, if you were in a non-1000 series car in the SAME CRASH your risk of death and injury was much less than if you were in a 1000 car. That is what the NTSB rightfully finds fault with Metro.

I agree the signaling mechanism is important regarding the crash, but you should also think when the crash happens, did Metro cut corners in the safety measures made available to all riders involved? YouÂ’d be upset if a bus only had seatbelts at the front and back right?

by L. Fairfax on Jul 28, 2010 9:42 pm • linkreport

The difference between Metro and an airline is that Metro is a (relatively) closed system where you can control most of the variables. If a plane breaks down, it will need to perform an emergency landing, but if a train breaks down, it just comes to a rolling stop. If you focus relentlessly on maintenance and reliability, having heavier cars should not be an issue.

It's also important to note that unlike airlines, Metro is a public resource with limited funds, so the argument here is to direct them the most wisely.

People tend to get wrapped up in the emotional argument of accidents without looking at the bigger picture. It's not "losing your humanity" to look at a situation more broadly and rationally; it's being a good planner. Unfortunately, this country seems to lack that perspective too often. And so we'll continue to overpay for heavier cars that wear down faster and don't travel as fast.

by Omar on Jul 28, 2010 10:55 pm • linkreport

Oh "airline: Very simple. New roads are a waste, and the money should be x-fered to both improving safety and expanding Metro. That help?

by John on Jul 29, 2010 12:08 am • linkreport


Your logic is faulty. You're saying that Metro isn't an airline because airlines have to make emergency landings when something goes wrong where as Metro can just stop.

Yet clearly this is a case where something went wrong -- and Metro didn't just stop. Something similar to a "midair collision" happened.

So I submit you're using a faulty argument. Planes can have collisions just like Metro can.

Moreover by mentioning Metro is a public resource with limited funds -- you just made the case why the NTSB was right to fault Metro, because since it IS public, it shouldn't have a "first class" vs. "economy class" with its cars. The 1000 Series are that when it comes to loss of life. Public funds carry with them greater responsibility to try and provide some equity to the riders.

by If Metro Was An Airline on Jul 29, 2010 8:42 am • linkreport


Part 2, just had another thought -- if Metro put all the 1000 cars only on the Red Line, you'd get upset right? Why, because you're using the public funds in an unfair way.

... But I thought you said crashes rarely happen, so it shouldn't matter right?

(Hey, I'm being rational right?)

You didn't answer my other question -- would you be willing to ride in an airplane with no lifejackets? It's a statistically rare even you'd need them?

This phrase: "we'll continue to overpay for heavier cars that wear down faster and don't travel as fast." -- is an efficiency argument.

But to test the internal consistency of your logic, I bet cars could travel faster and save their breaks if we didn't have so many pedestrians in D.C. That's also an efficiency argument? Are you saying that good planning would be to discourage people from walking in D.C. so we can have autos go faster and sve their breaks from wear and tear?

I bet not (I hope not). Why? Because there's also the public equity argument. Why yes a good plan might be to prevent crosswalks and have more people pass through -- it is striving to be equal in what you provide to the public.

After all, it's what GGW continues to push for, a Greater Greater Washington by more equal access to ride, walk, Metro, or drive. But guess what, sometimes that means you lose efficiency (say with cars) to make way for walking and driving.

That's why I'm *STUNNED* that GGW supporters would be so blind to the public equity role that the NTSB plays with safety, instead focusing on cost-benefit and efficiency.

Rational planning is good -- but attempting rational fairness is what you need to do with public resources (if you're private, you can opt not to do this). You forgot that rational fairness part. The 1000 series isn't fair to the passangers involved in the crash.


I hear you and agree -- why is GGW supportive of "no change" (keep the 1000 series) instead of pressure on District and States to give more money to WMATA so they can be more safe? Has GGW *sold out* to the public?

Are they too connected and in-love with the leadership to realize this is really a case where folks should be angry that public institutions (District and the States) didn't allocate our taxpayer money to make this safe?

by If Metro Was An Airline on Jul 29, 2010 8:52 am • linkreport

@Airline & Fairfax:
You both seem to be missing a major point to, at least my, argument:
Fix the signalizing system first. That was the actual cause of the accident. Airline is focusing on the car safety, that's like saying "Oh, I can't believe they didn't have airbags on the car" when the car had no brakes in the first place. Sure the airbags would have increased survivability, but the lack of brakes caused the accident. (Watch the NTSB animation again. The faulty signaling system was the cause of the accident, all the 1000 series cars did was exacerbate the fatality count, maybe, because apparently most metro cars have the trouble anyway.)

I would love to see the 1000 cars replaced for my own selfish reasoning (they ride like shit, they're beat to hell and they 95% of the time lack functioning A/C). But I'd rather the signalizing system be fixed FIRST, so that we can have a system with LESS CRASHES and survivability criteria are a much smaller consideration in a daily commute.

by kidincredible on Jul 29, 2010 9:24 am • linkreport

Just because I missed your last post before my post:
If airlines told me that I wouldn't have to pay for my checked bag because they took off the lifejackets, I'd probably fly. Or if they said they'd get me to my destination on-time or my money back because they took off the lifejackets, then yeah.
But if they said they removed the pilot to let me check my bag for free I wouldn't.

That's akin to the 1000s/signalizing issue. I ride metro because I don't want to drive. The issue of survivability in an already rare crash is minor to me (personally). The fact that they have a system to avoid crashes 99.9% of the time and it's just broken and they're not fixing it, bothers me (personally). These are cost-benefit decisions I make whenever I'm thinking about riding.

by kidincredible on Jul 29, 2010 9:28 am • linkreport

@Airline: Your logic is faulty. If an airliner collided with another in mid-air, you'd be in a heck of a lot more trouble than if you were on a train. Life jackets wouldn't help you then. For both trains and airliners, the point is to prevent collisions to begin with. And I'd be perfectly willing to fly on a plane without lifejackets, especially if that flight were over land.

I'm not sure why you're trying to tie a public equity argument into this, or "rational fairness." There's nothing rational about planning cars for the .0001% case by negatively affecting their everyday operation. You're caught up in the emotionality of the possible loss of one life out of millions. Let's cover all sidewalks with insulating foam so people don't get struck by lightning while we're at it!

As for your efficiency argument, transit carries many more people than cars, so that's why it deserves priority. But yes, pedestrians are banned from interstates so that cars can go faster, even though there is a greater safety risk involved. As a dedicated right-of-way, Metro can do even more to ensure safe, efficient operation without weighing down its cars with needless regulation.

The heavier cars do seem to travel over the rails more smoothly, so I won't complain about that. The main reason I'm participating in this argument is that I'm frustrated about the state of high-speed rail in the U.S., which is bogged down precisely by this kind of thoughtless regulation. If you focus on preventing crashes in the first place, like airlines do, then you don't need to fortify cars to be like tanks.

by Omar on Jul 29, 2010 12:27 pm • linkreport

Let me toss out some middle ground here:

1. We all seem to agree that public mass transportation like WMATA is woefully underfunded.

2. We all seem to agree that the signaling system needs to be fixed.

Where I guess we disagree is the view that NTSB shouldn't have also pointed out that the 1000 Series cars caused more loss of limb and life than if they had been replaced once the crashed happened. I personally think they should have -- which helps make the case that yes (2) needs to be fixed, in addition to (1) needs to be fixed.

Personally I think we should be outraged at the District and States for not providing WMATA the money to replace both the signaling system and the 1000 Series cars -- forget replacing the Board, get angry at DC, VA, and MD for not funding this valuable public resource!

by L. Fairfax on Jul 29, 2010 7:01 pm • linkreport

I can really only speak for myself, but I don't mind that NTSB mentioned the 1000 series. What I mind is the commenters on this blog taking away only that recommendation from the NTSB report. I mind the commenters crying over the "unsafe nature" of the 1000s without even batting an eye at the signal system errors. I've said before that I'm all for the 1000 series being replaced (along with the 2000-4000s or whichever cars suffer the same telescoping problems). But if I'm in WMATA's shoes and I'm looking at line items on a budget, my focus would be on spending what little money they have on fixing the signal system first.
[reCapcha: disorder gawk]

by kidincredible on Jul 30, 2010 9:44 am • linkreport


You're missing that these comments were in response to a GGW article that BEGAN by finding fault with the NTSB's citation of the 1000 Series.

We're not ignoring the signaling feature -- it's just that was in common agreement between what GGW wrote (that signalling was important) and what those of us concerned about the 1000 Series ALSO thought was important.

What was being debated here was whether NTSB was right to find fault with the 1000 Series.

So here's a third middle ground: 3.) We all agree that the signalling feature should have been fixed and is important.

... but where we disagree is whether NTSB was write to fault WMATA for not resolving the 1000 Series cars. Thus the emphasis.

Also -- I believe some people missed the points about planes. I could be wrong, but we're not talking about a mid-air collision in a plane as an analogy to WMATA. We're talking about how a plane-crash over the ocean where you have to land is a RARE EVENT, just like a Metro crash, yet we still require airplanes to have life jackets under your seat for that RARE EVENT.

Folks were someone saying we weren't being rational about RARE EVENTS -- but would you say it's not rational to have life jackets under your airplane's seat for the RARE EVENT of a water landing?

by L. Fairfax on Jul 30, 2010 8:56 pm • linkreport

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