DC Metro’s Derailment: Act Now, Don’t Wait

On Sunday night, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority announced it was pulling most of its trains out of circulation due to safety concerns. With just 40 trains left to serve the entire system, unsuspecting commuters were stranded on platforms and crammed into the few moving trains Monday morning.

Even with many offices still offering generous work from home policies, this level of service is not enough to maintain downtown Washington, D.C., as a viable center for government and business. Policymakers in states, cities, counties, and transportation agencies of the region need to act quickly so alternatives can be available by November 1 if WMATA is unable to return to full service.

The concerns stem from a troubling trend of railcar wheels and axels coming out of place – becoming too wide – among its new “7000 series” cars, which constitute 60 percent of WMATA’s trains and 83 percent of its service last year. Although WMATA has quietly been working to resolve this problem since 2017, a train derailment last week ignited a crisis.

Don’t Wait Until We Know

From the outside, we cannot know if WMATA and the National Transportation Safety Board are correctly balancing risk and service. But their safety-first approach could lead to an extended Metro “recession” which drastically reduces the capacity of DC commuters’ top choice. If resolution requires the railcars’ manufacturer to design, test and build replacement components, full restoration could take years.

Policymakers and officials should not wait. Many of us have become comfortable working from home, but that should not lead to complacency. Numerous folks cannot do so. Putting alternatives in place by November 1st – two weeks from the announcement – requires that planning and implementation begin now.

The multiplicity of jurisdictions involved — D.C., Maryland and Virginia —makes action all the harder and requires immediate leadership. Like the pandemic in lesser form, resolving this crisis will require officials at all levels to do things that are “not their jobs.”

Needed: Express Buses and Bus Lanes

In DC, as elsewhere, most bus lines fill in the gaps between Metro train stations and serve as a low-speed complement to the quicker trains. This crisis calls for a different approach: express buses, running in dedicated lanes to central, downtown locations. With Metro trains still running, there is no need to duplicate train routes or serve every destination. Instead, the goal should be to ease Metro demand by providing some riders a faster alternative.

DC pioneered the “pop-up bus lane” concept in 2018 to speed service when two stations were temporarily closed. It was not perfect, but it helped keep buses from being bogged down in car traffic.

For example, DC could take a lane of Georgia Ave to serve as a pop-up bus lane throughout the crisis. The existing local bus service would benefit, moving more quickly through some of DC’s most populous neighborhoods. And express buses originating in Wheaton, Silver Spring, Takoma and Petworth would also become realistic commute alternatives.

Bus lanes have costs – they remove car or parking lanes. When a bus lane is well-used, it can carry far more people than a lane carrying private cars, suggesting that it easily passes a cost-benefit test. Part of the value of pop-up infrastructure is that it can be quickly removed or redesigned if it fails to attract riders.

If You Build It…

Private coach and van operators can also be a key part of covering for Metro. States should commit to rapid approval of any required permits for coach or van operators who provide Metro replacing commuter service and issue temporary permits if full permits will take more than a week or two to issue. Metro should allow coach and van operators to load and unload in its parking lots where feasible, but otherwise, the private providers can operate separately, setting their own rates and schedules. The public contribution – setting up infrastructure that allows fast bus service – should be enough to draw in the private sector.

If bus lanes are created on highways, they should also allow high-occupancy vehicles. Whether arranged among commuters or via a ridesharing app, those take pressure off the rest of the transportation system.

Plan Now

The time to act is soon – before workers lose their jobs, stores close and downtown D.C. loses its economic vitality. The time to plan is now.


Photo retrieved via publicdomainpictures.net