Washington D.C., once known as the “City of Magnificent Distances”, may face major transportation shutdowns for the next few years. Last week, Metro board’s chairman Jack Evans announced that entire lines of the metro system will close down for months at a time or they risk falling into irreversible disrepair. Mr. Evans warned that if repairs are not started soon, the entire system could be dysfunctional within 10 years.
In the massive public outcry that followed the announcement, the manager of the Metro clarified that months-long closures are a worse case scenario, and closures are more likely to come in the form of individual sections of the track closed for a few days.
The construction announcement comes one year after a passenger died in an incident on the Yellow Line. In a high-voltage “arcing event”, electricity from the third rail jumped in a flash, causing the tunnel and L’Enfant Plaza metro stop to fill with smoke. Passengers were unable to detrain at the station. Most passengers remained on the train until firefighters came, some made the perilous climb up four stories of ladders to street level.
There have been numerous train derailments and near misses in the last 10 years on the D.C. metro. In 2009, six people were killed and 75 injured when two above ground trains collided at a platform
The problems that need attention are numerous but the most glaring is the system’s management. Since Washington D.C. is not a state, the metro system is jointly shared by Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. The convoluted management structure of the metro system has left it underfunded and neglected.
Every day 712,843 people ride the D.C. metro, bringing the yearly ridership to 204 million people. Construction shutdowns would cause massive delays, but metro officials argue that delays will only get worse if substantial reconstruction measures are held off in favor of quick easy updates.
Subway lines that fall into disrepair are more likely to be the site of serious accidents. Accidents on the subway or metro system can be the result of a variety of conditions. Successful malpractice cases have involved:
- Operator error or fatigue
- Collisions between trains
- Excessive speed
- Track malfunctions or other equipment malfunctions
- Malfunctioning retractable platforms
- Switched track lines
- Track fires
- Pedestrian injury
- Negligent maintenance
Subway and metro riders must be able to trust that the system will transport them safely to their destinations. Some have attributed the 6% decrease in ridership on the D.C. metro in the last year to increased concerns of metro safety.
Anthony Foxx, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, spoke publicly after the announcement about the urgent importance of D.C. fixing its metro system. Unified oversight is most in need of improvement, and Foxx expressed frustration that officials in the D.C. area have failed to work together on this issue.
Earlier this year after a train derailed on the green line, D.C. metro officials confirmed that they knew the section of tracks had problems. With the national spotlight now turned on the D.C. metro system, many hope that reconstruction projects of the metro system will focus on more than subway cars and rail lines, and that they will also affect management itself.