If you shake a haystack and a needle falls out, it’s safe to assume the haystack is full of needles. Last month’s Metro crash may have been just such a needle, a symptom of a much greater problem in Washington’s transit system.
Washington Post reports that diagnostics since last month’s crash indicate Metro-wide technical failures. Four of five lines show large “dark” tracts where circuits cannot detect trains’ presence. Conductors rely on these circuits to maintain safe distances between trains. When circuits fail, nothing forces dangerously close trains to stop.
Metro chief Dave Kubicek acknowledged dangerous technical “anomalies.” Federal officials have helped Metro scrutinize circuitry failures. But no investigators have identified the cause of last month’s crash. In fact, other than analyze the site where critical equipment was replaced days before the crash, officials have done nothing to determine whether circuitry failures caused the accident.
Nor has Metro replaced uncrashworthy cars responsible for eighty-nine casualties June 22. Private companies provide cars and materials in return for tax exemptions affiliated with Metro’s public utility. Metro replaces cars only when materials themselves are damaged. Unfortunately, only severe damage can compel Metro to address the problem. Officials knew in 2004 that their cars were barely fit for passengers, and received an “urgent” warning from federal officials. But Metro did not plan to replace those cars until 2015.
Transparency is the best strategy. If the 2004 memos had been public, market forces would have pressured Metro to replace dangerous equipment. Costs would have been steep at the time, but cheaper than the increased premiums insurers will demand because Metro clearly does not take steps to protect itself from accident liability.
Already Metro denies the extent of its failures. Rather than fix the problem, Metro maintains a fund for inevitable negligence suits. One wrongful death suit already filed requests $25 million. Metro could have put that money towards safer cars and functioning circuitry.
What a shame that the dollar-and-cent incentives in place direct the Metro to find and share a tax shelter, rather than to protect the very public whose taxes shelter the Metro’s existence itself.