“Look alive, good times are ahead.”
Such was the message of the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority—next to a cheery dance crew, no less—in a video advertisement celebrating the opening of the Silver Line in July last year. It seems those happy times are farther ahead than WMATA thought. On Jan. 13, during what the National Transportation Safety Board referred to as “an electrical arcing event,” a train tunnel near L’Enfant Plaza station filled with smoke, resulting in the death of one passenger and the hospitalization of at least eighty others.
While the incident raises significant questions about the quality of Metrorail’s infrastructure, more disconcerting, perhaps, are WMATA’s inadequacies in responding to the emergency in a timely and effective manner. Before firefighters could reach them, passengers suffocated for at least half an hour while instructions told them to stay on the smoke-filled train. 911 operators did not know that passengers were trapped and emergency radios had no signal coverage inside the station, forcing firefighters to communicate using their cellphones.
This accident came less than six years after another deadly accident in 2009, when two trains collided with one another and killed nine people. Despite a $5 billion capital improvement project that continues to repair and upgrade the metro, the tragic electrical fault on Jan. 13 follows a long slew of derailments, train-to-train collisions, and track worker accidents that date as far back as 1982. These accidents certainly foster a disturbing image of D.C.’s metro system, and call into question whether or not WMATA’s top leadership has been committed to properly maintaining the railway infrastructure.
All of these deadly accidents show that, still, not enough is being done to protect the residents who rely heavily on Metrorail to provide a safe daily commute between downtown, Maryland, and Virginia. Subway ridership has been stagnant in recent years, and no ridership growth means no revenue growth. If this stagnation continues, WMATA risks being unable to afford the critical upgrades the system needs after years of negligence and procrastination.
As reports about the incident continue to trickle in from the D.C. government, the NTSB, and WMATA, Metrorail’s disturbing safety record should strike a particular chord with the Georgetown University community, especially its students, who frequently use the Metro to commute to and from their internships. Carol Glover, the 61-year old woman who passed away in the Jan. 13 incident, could have just as easily been a Hoya on his or her way to the office.
The D.C. metro is a service that District residents should cherish and WMATA should continue to promote. It keeps vehicles and buses off the roads while promoting employment and commerce. However, the hundreds of thousands of passengers that ride its trains everyday should be able to trust that its infrastructure is being properly maintained and WMATA staff operate on a work ethic that prioritizes safety and emergency management. A vague apology letter in the Washington Post just won’t do to restore Metrorail’s reputation of providing an efficient, reliable transit service for District residents and workers.