The agency that operates the DC Metro system late last week announced two belated safety upgrades for its aging fleet of rail cars. While the hundreds of thousands of Washington, D.C., Northern Virginia, and Maryland residents who ride Metro every day no doubt welcome the moves from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, they — and I — can’t help but view the upgrades as perhaps too little and too late.
WMATA has decided to install software that prevents railroad trains from rolling backwards while stopped on 182 of its older rail cars six years after one of its Metro trains rolled back into another at the Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan Metrorail station. The authority notes carefully in a Feb. 26, 2010 press release that no passengers were aboard the train that went out of control. A Washington Post article written on the day of the 2004 accident more accurately reports that 20 passengers on the struck train required trips to the hospital for the treatment of injuries following the rollback accident. The rollback software is widely used by other railroads and is recommend by the National Transportation Safety Board.
Also, following four instances in 2007 and 2008 when doors on cars opened on the track side of a train instead of the platform side, WMATA has decided to replace the automatic door controls on about 600 of its cars. This will make roughly half of Metro’s rolling stock secure against accidentally spilling packed passengers onto the rails when a train pulls into a station.
DC Metro has seen a string of serious accidents since early last summer. The most serious involved a collision between two Red Line trains near the Fort Totten station in Maryland that killed seven passengers and crew members and injured at least 70 other people. Since that tragic June 22, 2009, incident, accidents have injured or killed at least a dozen other commuters and Metro workers.
Light rail passengers and railroad workers need to know they are safe. WMATA appears to be taking some actions to foster that assurance. At the same time, the authority is also moving slowly and with an eye toward its bottom line; both of last week’s WMATA press releases noted how much the safety upgrades would cost. Metro officials need to move faster and prioritize safety regardless of cost.