This is an expanded version of a letter to the editor by Terry Maynard published in the Washington Post.
As the Post reports today about the latest major safety flaw in Metro’s system: The train that derailed last week was operating on track deemed to be “black code”—to be shut down immediately until repaired—last month. This is only the latest in a string of major failures in recent years. The effects have ranged from deadly accidents to near daily delays and station closures, reduced ridership, deteriorating finances, demoralized employees, and more. Metrorail is in crisis.
It is time for a “Metrorail holiday.” Just as FDR closed the nation’s banks for a week-long “bank holiday” in 1933 to put laws and programs in place to salvage the nation’s banks and their patrons, we need the same kind of action for our most critical regional transit system.
We have the benefit of some time, although at some risk. In that time, the US Department of Transportation should form a number of truly independent groups expert in every facet of rail mass transit activities. Those groups should review Metro’s performance and prepare questions on the full range of potential issues from WMATA’s Board composition to escalator failures.
Then comes the holiday. During a week of normally low Metro usage—possibly after Christmas or next August summer break period at the latest—Metrorail should be shut down. WMATA and local public transit agencies should anticipate this shutdown by temporarily bulking up bus and other transit options. There will be disruptions, but everyone should have time to prepare.
During that holiday, every person involved with Metro should be interviewed, every network and piece of equipment from telephones to rail cars should be examined, every policy and process should be reviewed, and every inch of track should be inspected.
Each expert group should prepare a systematic analysis and submit it with a series of findings and recommendations to the Secretary of Transportation. DOT may need to prepare an overview of the results, set an overarching agenda, and provide other guidance to WMATA. Future federal and other funding should be tied to WMATA addressing the recommendations satisfactorily.
Yes, it is that bad. Yes, it will be disruptive. Yes, a Metrorail holiday is absolutely necessary to make Metro a safe and reliable mass transit system. Anything less will result in Metrorail’s continuing death spiral and growing danger to the public.