Photo by ep_jhu on Flickr.

Jason Cherkis takes exception to my argument that the NTSB was being too harsh on the WMATA Board in its report yesterday.

I argued that it wasn’t realistic for the WMATA Board to “psychically divine” that the safety reports the GM was providing them were omitting all the track signal alarms they were getting every day but ignoring.

Cherkis says that WMATA ignored many NTSB reports: a 1996 recommendation to replace the 1000 series railcars and to reinforce the 2000, 3000, and 4000 series, and another recommendation to do the same in 2006.

Cherkis writes,

The board needed no such psychic powers. All they had to do was read previous NTSB reports. The same reports that they ignored over and over again.

First off, assuming everything the NTSB said is true, which we have no reason to doubt, I don’t think they were being too harsh on the safety staff. And as for the Board, many of you made some good points. It probably would be better to have a special safety committee of the Board instead of lumping it in with customer service. The Board’s mission statement should include safety. And they probably could have been pushing staff a little harder before and after the crash.

However, it’s important to distinguish two different elements of the crash. One is the signal system. The other is the railcars.

The signal system should have worked. It’s inexcusable that it didn’t. It’s inexcusable that the NTSB could find all these problems with it but WMATA could not. It’s inexcusable that a lot of people seem to have ignored the fact that the systems were generating errors and nobody was looking into why.

The 1000-series railcars should also be replaced. But can we really say the Board ignored the NTSB’s recommendation? Actually, they spent a decade fighting for federal and local funding to replace the cars. This year, that funding finally came through, and WMATA is replacing the cars. Sure, it would have been nice to replace them earlier, but it wasn’t like the money was sitting in a bank account gathering interest.

In lambasting of the Board yesterday, the NTSB sounded petulant that WMATA hadn’t dropped everything to replace half its railcar fleet and magically come up with the money to do so. It’s too bad they didn’t follow that NTSB recommendation, but that NTSB recommendation was wildly unrealistic. Nonetheless, leaders spent 15 years on it and are now close to achieving it.

But I still object to the NTSB’s continued focus on crashworthiness of railcars, their pressure to replace or revamp the 2000 through 4000 series, and their peevish attitude that WMATA hasn’t done that already. The money isn’t there. The achievable safety gains revolve around avoiding crashes, not rebuilding cars around handling crashes.

An obsession with crash survivability, instead of crash avoidance, already led the FRA to wreck intercity passenger rail in the US. Sure, new cars should be safer, and WMATA should replace ones that are unsafe as quick as they can, but despite running all these supposedly unsafe cars, Metro still had a fraction of the injury or fatality rate of highways. We might demand safer cars to be built going forward, but we don’t demand that every driver on the road immediately replace his or her private car with the fanciest side curtain airbags on the luxury models.

Could the Board have done better? Yes. Should we demand better in the future? Absolutely. Did they just ignore NTSB recommendations around railcars? No, they pushed for 15 years to find money to satisfy that particular recommendation. And ironically, one of the only reasons the feds even came through with the money for new railcars was because of the crash. If it hadn’t happened, WMATA might still be lobbying to replace the 1000 series.

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.