The latest audit of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority by the Federal Transit Administration, requested by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., did little to calm the fears of Metro riders anxious about their safety in the wake of the fatal 2009 Red Line crash, which killed nine people and injured dozens more. Although federal auditors noted that WMATA has made "significant progress" since the National Transportation Safety Board blamed faulty track circuits and Metro's own lax attitude toward safety for the worst accident in its history, they cautioned that these improvements provide "a critical but fragile foundation for the future" that could easily be reversed.
The word "fragile" is not what you want to hear when you're hurtling forward on manually operated trains in dark underground tunnels. The supposedly "fail safe" computer system isn't.
And the software program that forced the entire control system to shut down -- twice -- during one memorable weekend in July, is still unreliable.
The good news is that the number of Metro fatalities has steadily decreased since 2009, when 23 people -- including 8 passengers, 12 patrons (defined as those waiting on station platforms or other transit-owned property) and three workers lost their lives. But injury statistics in the FTA audit report paint a more troubling picture.
A total of six persons were injured on Metro facilities in 2008. That number skyrocked to 77 in 2009, the year of the Red Line crash. Metro got it back down to 26 in 2010, but it surged again in 2011, when 60 people -- including 48 patrons -- were hurt in Metro facilities. This year's injury count was 50 as of August 31, raising concerns that the positive steps Metro has taken to improve safety following the 2009 disaster were not a permanent fix.
FTA made six new recommendations to address "remaining gaps" raised by nine mishaps, including train doors that are still opening between stations and a Green Line derailment in July.
On May 29, a Metro worker was struck in a train car-washing facility in Shady Grove. The fact that Metro's employees are still getting hit by their own trains two years after General Manager Richard Sarles promised FTA he would improve track worker safety does little to reassure Metro's paying customers that the transit agency has really reversed what NTSB called the "anemic safety culture" that got it into trouble in the first place.