The tragic event in Washington D.C which took the lives of 9 respected citizens and injured 80 others has spawned much discussion over issues of rail safety and fault. One issue in particular which has aroused the public’s curiosity (and indignation) is the fact that the NTSB recommended that Metro scrap its outdated cars – cars which include the train which derailed, killing so many – years before the tragedy. Metro did not act, and the public is left wondering why exactly a government agency with an annual budget of $10.3 billion makes safety recommendations which are not enforced. In short, the public finds it rather upsetting that an agency such as the NTSB cannot make legal pronouncements, only recommendations. If these recommendations don’t hold legal weight, they at least need to hold enough weight to force transit companies – such as Metro – to follow them.
A former NTSB chairman shared his insights on Washington Post, where he articulates quite well just what the problem is here. Metro has been repeatedly throwing its hands up in the air, declaring innocence with “lack of funds” as their evidence. This is hardly convincing, though it certainly tells some piece of the story. Metro’s revenue from fares and advertising are not sufficient to cover their costs, so they annually appeal to local governments (including Virginia and Maryland) for funding. No doubt, doing so limits their abilities for long-term planning. But the real, live options they nevertheless had are almost staggering in light of the fact that none of them were taken.
It is rather unlikely that Metro simply decided that safety was inconsequential; rather, they probably reasoned that a severe accident was too unlikely to take NTSB recommendations seriously. This is the real problem which happened with Metro, but unfortunately is also happening across the nation at railroad crossings. The former chairman expresses the problem quite well:
“A system of uniform regulations is critical to preventing continued operation of a tombstone transit system, whereby local improvements are made only after a tragedy has occurred.”
There is far too little accountability. Prevention is being taken for granted in an industry where accidents end hundreds of lives annually at the hands of petty excuses.