Metro Train Crash and Safety Standards

In a blink of an eye our view of something we take for granted can change. How many hundreds of million passengers has the Metro safely carried since a passenger was last killed? I take it routinely as the fastest, safest, cheapest means to get from my home and office in Maryland to the District of Columbia's court system . My wife takes it from her office to meetings downtown or to the airport. My daughter took it to her new job, on that horrible day and made it home safely without grasping what had happened. Many others were not so fortunate.

Its been five years since the last serious incident, a red line disaster that left 20 injured. Before that a 1996 incident killed the operator of the train. It has been twenty seven years since the last passenger death. An orange line derailment which killed three. The question is how safe is the Metro system?

Preliminary word is that the first car of the train that struck, was two months overdue for brake work and evidently had been recommended for replacement ,as questions existed as to its crashworthiness. But realistically these aren't bumper cars, if we can't keep them from crashing into each other, there is a very serious problem at work. As always money plays a role. The cars weren't replaced despite the crashworthiness issue because of cost. That probably explains the overdue brake work too. All of this plays into a long-term Metro issue, the absence of a long-term dedicated funding source. Because Metro is a by-product of a compact between Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, their cooperation is essential and often not forthcoming. Politics trumps safety until disaster strikes.

This was the case in the 2004 collision. The oldest cars, also involved in yesterday's crash, lacked a so-called rollback mechanism to literally ensure the cars did not roll back into one another. In 2004 they did and twenty were injured. While the rollback system appeared not to have played a role in yesterday's disaster, the cars involved still lacked the rollback mechanism despite the passage of five years and the specter of the 2004 incident.

It is said that Metro officials believed that a collision such as yesterdays was impossible. Metro's fail-safe computerized signal system was supposed to prevent this. Somehow fail-safe items never quite fulfill their title. Mind you there were reports of incidents even five years ago of failure of the fail-safe mechanism but no one was killed and the incidents received scant public notice.

What can we do? Fortunately, the United States Government, in recent times caricatured by republicans as incompetent, operates the worlds most effective accident investigation agency, The National Transportation Safety Board. They will bring their C.S.I.-Like prowess to the investigation. The politicians will meet and avow their determination that this will never happen again and perhaps the persistent long-term funding issues at Metro will be addressed. But I suspect that until the trial lawyers get into the act, the truth of what happened and why won't really be forthcoming. After all, Metro and its constituent governments have ignored the warning signs before because of money. Perhaps, when they are done providing fair compensation to the victims of this tragedy, they will heed the NTSB recommendations and make this system truly fail-safe.
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