That Metro train that derailed near Smithsonian Station last week? WMATA employees detected the track problems that caused it… a month ago. And Metro didn’t fix it. This is outrageous. Even more outrageous is the way such surprises keep cropping up yet top brass insist everything is fine.

Covering ears image from Shutterstock.

Interim general manager Jack Requa revealed at a press conference that the Track Geometry Vehicle detected a problem with the tracks on July 9, but nothing was done.

Requa said, “I don’t want to mince words, but this was totally unacceptable. … We found this and should have addressed it earlier. It’s Metro’s responsibility totally.”

This has happened before. Many times.

The problem is indeed Metro’s responsibility. More than that, riders and area leaders also need to know why this same scenario keeps happening. Over and over, something goes wrong with Metro that causes enormous headaches for riders or even death, and then it turns out Metro officials had ample warning. Yet all the while, those leaders were insisting Metro was “on the right track.”

  • In the 2009 Fort Totten crash, the signal system was sending alerts about losing the connection with a train, but doing it so often that officials ignored the constant alerts.
  • Before the Federal Transit Administration started withholding funding from Metro, the Inspector General was warning about accounting irregularities.
  • For the January smoke incident, WMATA and DC firefighters were aware that radios weren’t working properly in the tunnels and they couldn’t communicate properly in the event of an emergency.
  • And now, this news about the derailment.

At a July hearing before the Montgomery County Council, multiple witnesses including state delegate Marc Korman, state assistant transportation secretary Kevin Reigrut, and I all talked about how riders have lost confidence in WMATA. Yet Requa’s testimony was all about how they reduced escalator outages by such and such percent and so on.

Councilmember Roger Berliner, who was chairing the hearing, asked Requa to address the big gulf between his testimony suggesting things are improving and all of the criticism. Requa declined to admit any problems in his agency, and just continued to cite gradual progress.

That progress is welcome, for sure, but something is undoubtedly wrong in an organization where warnings of problems go either unheeded or unaddressed. It’s good for Requa to admit this was “Metro’s responsibility, totally”; what’s he going to do to stop this chain of surprises?

How did this happen, and how can it stop happening over and over?

Is there an internal communication problem where reports of problems just don’t go up the chain? Could Metro have fixed these problems if its leaders had just been more aware? If so, Requa needs to tell the public why this is so endemic in the organization and what he’ll do to fix it.

Or is Metro coping with such an enormous list of things being broken, where it’s simply not possible to fix them all? For each one failure that turns into a crisis, are there ten that don’t, and is Metro just triaging? If so, Requa needs to admit how precarious the situation is and say what he needs to get out of that hole.

Or is Metro’s bureaucracy so ossified that problems don’t get solved? Or are there a lot of incompetent people in the way? Or something else? If so, Requa might have to reveal problems at other levels of his own organization, but the public deserves to know this and hear some reason to believe it’s changing.

We’ve been hearing for years now that Metro has things under control, is fixing everything that’s broken, and will get back to a “state of good repair” in a few years, and then it’ll all be okay. That’s just not consistent with the reality riders are seeing, where disaster strikes and every time it turns out someone ignored warning signs.

What is Requa going to do to stop the surprises?

The WMATA Board also must address this. Its members choose the general manager (and are trying to hire a permanent one now). They set policies. Often, they quietly tell staff not to present certain options or information to the public.

They need to insist that Metro executives fess up to what’s going on and state a plan to fix it. So should the chief executives of DC, Maryland, and Virginia who appoint many board members, and the elected officials in Virginia and DC who sit directly on the board.

The building is on fire and those in charge keep telling us it’s just a hot day. Who will step up with explanations and a plan, not just about this one crisis, or the last one, or the one before, but one that’s about what’s systemtically wrong with an organization where this keeps happening?

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.