30 October 2008

This delay brought to you by the letter 'Fire'

Two days ago I expressed extreme skepticism about the Washington Metro's knuckle-headed new security plans mostly on the basis of the plan being ill conceived for any city. I failed to mention that I am especially doubtful that WMATA in particular can keep me safe. (Or perform most other basic functions, for that matter.)

Further support for my "WMATA is run by slack-jawed screw-ups" theory came last night. When trying to get downtown to meet a friend my train sat on the tracks for about 30 minutes at Tenleytown. This delay, by itself, is not so unique. It's annoying, but I've come to expect such things. When I got home I saw this in my feed reader, informing me that the delays were due to a fire on the tracks at the Woodley Park station. This is a bigger sign of mismanagement, but sadly it isn't all that surprising either. (WMATA, like many government agencies, essentially does not budget for maintenance. They operate under the assumption that when it's time to overhaul systems they can go around, hat in hand, and demand more transit funding. No one will turn them away if they claim it's to improve passenger safety.*)

What really bugs me is that for the half hour that I'm sitting on the tracks, unknowingly waiting for a fire to be dealt with, the driver kept getting on the intercom to tell people that the delay is so that they can "re-balance the schedule" or "adjust the arrival intervals" or something like that. Even if their notoriously incorrect Passenger Information Display system was half right, I knew at the time that this was bull. But when I heard about the fire I realized this guy either had no idea what he was doing and just made things up, or someone at WMATA made a conscious decision to lie to passengers about their error. Either way it doesn't make me feel very confident that their little screening procedures are going to keep me that safe.

* This is a gross simplification, but I maintain it is still more true than not.


  1. I doubt WMATA wants to announce to it's riders that there is a fire on the track ahead of them. Might cause some people to freak out, don't you think?

    People that don't respect others throw their newspapers, and other garbage, onto the track more than you care to know. This causes... drumroll please... fires.

    But hey, you were delayed... poor you.

  2. I wasn't complaining that I was delayed. I'm making the point hat if they can't get the trains to run on time then they probably can't be trusted to keep them safe either.

    And if you're worried about people panicking that there's a fire a couple of miles down the track they could have announced that there was a maintenance problem and we would be moving again when it was taken care of. This would have been most of the truth and would not have caused concern.

    Instead they dishonestly claimed it was just a planned adjustment to the schedule that would only take a couple of minutes. If they're going to slow me down by half an hour I can deal with it -- but have the decency to tell me its going to be a half an hour so I can adjust my expectations and let the people who are waiting for me know how late I'm going to be running. WMATA's handling of these incidents is disrespectful to my intelligence and my friend's schedules.

  3. WMATA needs funding. The counties all want to promote that they are near to a bus/rail line, but no one wants to help subsidize it.

    What WMATA REALLY needs is a third rail. This would eliminate most of the delays that you speak of when a train could go around a problem, a station, a fire, etc.

    The ORANGE line, for example - it is busiest from the VIENNA station to the nearest transfer point in DC. If they had another track, and could shuttle trains just between those two stations, the wait time for trains, people that could be moved, etc, would be amazing!

    I hope that when they eventually build the next line out to Dulles, that they consider a third rail. No one can pay for it, but it's needed.

  4. You're right. I'm generally opposed to rail transit (check out Randy O'Toole's Antiplanner for reasons.) But if we're going to have a system it ought to be done correctly. Being able to by pass a section of track should be a priority. As to local governments shirking funding: yeah, but isn't that always the way it goes? Governments want more goodies without having to pay for them, just like the voters who put them there. I'm sure we could go on and on about better ways to run transit systems, especially WMATA.