Washington's once highly-regarded Metrorail system is falling apart, as a series of major incidents over the last three days plainly illustrates. Two separate equipment malfunctions forced Metro to completely close its busy Dupont Circle station during Monday morning's rush hour as Red Line riders piled up on the station platform, causing dangerous overcrowding. This intolerable breach in service was topped over the weekend by not one, but two shutdowns of the entire Metrorail system over a 12-hour period.
Metro blamed its supposedly "fail-safe" computer system for twice stranding passengers on all five lines for a half hour or more before service was restored. Metro's other recent equipment problems -- cracked and heat-kinked rails, brake parts flying off railcars -- pose serious public safety concerns. But the failure of both the Rail Operations Control Center computers and Metro's multimillion-dollar backup system (which inexplicably uses the same software system) took that existing hazard to a new level.
Three years after the fatal 2009 Red Line crash, which was caused by the failure of computerized track circuits, Metro remains as sloppy in maintaining its information technology infrastructure as its escalators. As The Washington Examiner's Kytja Weir reported, an audit by Metro Inspector General Helen Lew found that Metro bought expensive computer hardware and software that didn't meet its own standards, increasing the risk of "system vulnerabilities." And Metro's IT department wasn't even informed about some of these purchases.
Such preventable departures from best practices are unacceptable in any well-run organization. But they are inexcusable in a public transit system that depends on its computers to keep track of speeding trains in dark underground tunnels. If Metro were an airline, it would have been shut down long ago by federal regulators.
The Metro Board's dereliction of duty is at the root of the current crisis. Instead of demanding accountability from management when safety issues surfaced, board members approved fare increases, the latest of which went into effect July 1st. Instead of oversight, board members preferred the rubber stamp. They have even agreed to let Metro refer to trains running 30 minutes apart during off-peak hours as "on time" if any maintenance or repair work is being done on the line. They have successfully reduced accountability in advance -- that is the Metro way of planning ahead for the next crisis.