Washington, D.C.

Why Is Washington D.C.'s Metro System Such a Disaster?

A toxic work environment, unaccountable staff, and managers focused on microwaves and uniforms.

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D.C. Metro |||

Washington D.C.'s subway system closed down for the entire day on Wednesday so that safety inspectors could take stock of the system following a major track fire on Monday. In 2015, another track fire caused a train to fill with smoke, sickening passengers and resulting in one fatality.

Last year, the Washingtonian published a long investigative piece on the roots of Metro's problems. The story found that the system has a toxic work environment, and employees charged with keeping the system in good repair know they'll never be fired so they have no incentive to do their jobs well. Meanwhile, in the past, as dangerous maintenance issues were left ignored, managers stayed focused on petty issues, like making sure workers "wore their uniforms correctly and used Metro-issued microwaves to cook food instead of their own."

In 2012, Kennedy and I did a Reason TV story on the Metro's escalators, which are constantly breaking down and occasionally injuring riders. We found that the problem was rooted in part in a 1992 decision to stop using private contractors to repair and maintain the escalators because, the theory went, in-house staff could do a better job for less money.

It didn't work out that way.

Click below to watch the video:

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  1. One of my least favorite phrases is “job security”. My job security is doing my job well, and that’s the only job security that is needed. Anything else is just incentive to not do your job well. Whenever I hear government bureacrats or unions say that job security is a human right, I vomit a bit inside.

      1. Please don’t do it in the Metro.

        1. The smell on some of the 1000 series cars leads me to believe it has been done many times before.

  2. So a bunch of Stewart/Cobert fans busted their ass due to poor maintenance on a government run and maintained escalator. Irony can be pretty ironic sometimes.

  3. I blame feral ghouls and mole rats.

    1. What about mole men who eat rats?

      1. That’s not sexy at all. SMDH

    2. What about feral mome raths?

      1. Would you just stop outgribing about that?

  4. the theory went, in-house staff could do a better job for less money.

    Well I mean, name just one other time when government spent more money doing a job than the private sector. Just one. I’ll wait.

    1. *** waves hands ***

      Oh, I know! Printing money!

    2. With or without the GDP multiplier?

    3. Gulags and Death Camps……what do I win !?!?!?!?

    4. Government *has* improved efficiency in corruption and graft every year since Kennedy took office. That’s nothing to outgribe at.

  5. a cloistered fiefdom defined by petty power squabbles and lawlessness.

    In other words…. *just like everything else in Washington D.C.*

  6. .In a post-smoke-incident review, the FTA discovered….. up-to-date rule books weren’t always available, because of problems with the printer and three-hole puncher.

    Never change, Government. Spend $1m on a fact-finding investigation to learn that a defective three-hole puncher was “a factor” in the failure of a certain bureaucracy.

    1. You know who else was a three hole puncher?

      1. What a waste. Isn’t a double tap sufficient?

    2. post-smoke-incident review

      Nice album name.

  7. Correct me if I’m wrong, but if an escalator breaks,
    doesn’t it turn into…. stairs?

    Are you telling me that people in our nation’s capitol don’t know how use stairs without incurring severe bodily injury?

    1. An escalator can never break, it can only become stairs. You would never see an “Escalator Temporarily Out Of Order” sign, just “Escalator Temporarily Stairs. Sorry for the convenience”. We apologize for the fact that you can still get up there. – Mitch Hedberg, 2003

    2. If a motor stops working an escalator turns into stairs, if the wrong thing breaks an escalator turns into a 90 mph Drunken Barrel fun ride at a late-night Mississippi county fair for a few seconds and then turns into a jagged pile of steel as it collapses into a 40-foot hole.

      1. So these multi-million dollar crony contracts….
        They don’t include failsafe designs?

        *shrugs*
        I figured as much. I wonder how often that happens at private malls (or any other place that would be held accountable)

      2. A couple of keystones make anything pleasurable.

    3. Hilariously, often subways will “shut down” non-functioning escalators (block them off) rather than let people use them as stairs…claiming that they could be further damaged while being passively used that way, and also citing risk to passengers….

      …but of course simply causing people to have to crush themselves in crowds down the only remaining stairs, resulting in more-frequent injuries. Meanwhile, no one repairs the escalator for 3 months.

      1. At many stations there will be only one functioning escalator that is turned off so it can be used as stairs for both directions.

    4. if an escalator breaks, doesn’t it turn into…. stairs?

      Well, stairs that aren’t designed like a proper stairway. The rise is too tall, there’s no rest stops, etc. That’s why when you see an escalator out everyone’s taking the stairs instead of the escalator.

      1. Unless one is dragging a 30lb o2 tank, the rest stop should be called the shame stop.

    5. Did you watch the video?

      1. Well, a Kulak or a Wrecker obviously greased them.

    6. True, they turn to stairs, but the DC metro stairs can be like 500 feet long. Tough when you have a suitcase too.

  8. Because controllers?the most critical employees?were in such short supply, they were allowed to follow their own rules.

    And why were they in “short supply”? you already noted =

    The ROCC’s insular culture was partly shaped by financial motives. The center was sorely understaffed?according to the FTA, of 52 controller positions this past spring, 18, or about a third, were unfilled. Because of the shortage, controllers could significantly augment their salaries with overtime;

    The entire piece is a case study of someone “just learning” of the bizarre, perverse incentive-structures involved in any Government operation. all the problems they describe are the same things you’d find looking under the rock of any bureaucracy.

    The authors barely seem to ‘get it’ themselves. They DO, but the fact it all seems so new and surprising to them is disturbing

    Metro also spun certain stats in its favor….. a 2011 report showed on-time rail performance exceeding targets only because it had revised the benchmark down by 5 percent.

    Gasp!? A government agency? manipulating its self-evaluation-statistics?? Why, this calls for another Oversight Board!!

  9. With much newer infrastructure and more off hours to do repairs it’s hard to believe DC’s subway could possibly be any worse than NYC’s but that seems to be what people are saying in the various linked articles. Wow.

    1. The local fauna provide additional danger. I am sure someone could provide a guide to the time and place to experience the most adventure.

    2. it’s hard to believe DC’s subway could possibly be any worse than NYC’s but that seems to be what people are saying in the various linked articles.

      If its “worse” it is only in the sense that their problems are more noticeable because the system is MUCH smaller and breakdowns are treated as big news.

      Compared to say, the G train… which is just *assumed* to be in a constant process of breaking. its not news.

      All of the institutional corruption, mismanagement, incompetence is exactly the same, otherwise.

      1. All of the institutional corruption, mismanagement, incompetence is exactly the same, otherwise.

        No doubt… but the DC system does seem to kill more passengers.

        1. they’re just not as good at hiding the bodies

          1. Pff, there’s a river right there just like here.

            1. But you guys have the feral hobos living in the tunnels. Just dump a body down a likely looking hole and it becomes hobo chow.

        2. See, government *is* good at something!

    3. What I do like about the Metro is that it is relatively clean and it isn’t very complex in the sense that you don’t have to walk around in tunnels to get to your platform.

  10. Was this a serious question?

    1. No. It is obvious that the problem is insufficient funds. WMATA is always complaining that it doesn’t have dedicated taxes. At least that is what I hear from their management. The next time I see six Metro employees standing on a platform, holding clipboards, and talking about the game last night I will have to ask them what they think Metro’s biggest problems are.

  11. SF’s doing a fine job, too:
    “Update, 4 p.m. Friday: BART says it’s conducting intensive testing of a stretch of track where electrical power surges damaged dozens of cars on Wednesday.”
    http://ww2.kqed.org/news/2016/…..and-delays

    How did that come about?
    “BART chased glamorous projects as its core system decayed”
    […]
    “Splashy extensions in recent years have taken BART down the Peninsula, deeper into the East Bay and tantalizingly close to Silicon Valley. Meanwhile, its core is falling apart.”
    http://www.sfchronicle.com/bay…..pid=gatehp (pay wall)
    Yep, the sort of (mis) management that would get your ass tossed in a minute working for a private company probably won’t even get a wrist-slap here.

    1. The technical problems in DC and SF make me think NYC is lucky to be running on mostly 75-year-old technology.

      1. The technical problems are irrelevant to your presumption that the right Top Men can make it work.
        S/he can’t.

  12. Metro/BART style transit systems are too bulky, expensive, and trouble-prone to be tolerated much longer in the modern age. If transit systems continue to be built, they will have to use lighter-weight, less-expensive infrastructure and offer passengers convenience and amenities similar to personal cars. I am not a big believer in autonomous vehicles on regular surface roads; I think it is important to separate “mass transit” from street/highway traffic, and ensure that, for most people, most of the time, the mass-transit option is more convenient, more affordable, and at least as time-efficient as a personal car. I think this can be done, and I think the result looks like PRT: Personal Rapid Transit. Regarding extending BART to Silicon Valley, it would have been more cost-effective, and completed more quickly, to establish PRT in the South Bay and extend IT to Fremont BART station. This idea was floated before the turn of the century. If it had been taken and pursued seriously. even as late as ten or 15 years ago, Silicon Valley and BART would be linked by now, and South Bay neighborhoods and their commuters would be much more effectively and less expensively served, than they are or can be by the continued southern extension of BART.

    1. If transit systems continue to be built, they will have to use lighter-weight, less-expensive infrastructure and offer passengers convenience and amenities similar to personal cars.

      So . . . buses then?

      . . . and ensure that, for most people, most of the time, the mass-transit option is more convenient, more affordable, and at least as time-efficient as a personal car.

      Lots of cities already do that, not by improving mass transit but by ensuring that the roads are deliberately set to not accommodate the needs of private drivers.

      Quite frankly, cities need to stop subsidizing mass transit of any sort. if it can’t pay for itself then there isn’t sufficient need for it. At the very least it will *fully* incentivize the providers to search for efficiencies in a way that the current subsidized model actually *discourages*.

      And before any starts shouting about ‘the poor’ – a decent working used auto can be had for 2-4k. And for those who genuinely can’t afford that then maybe we could take some of the ridiculous money earmarked for light rail and bus subsidies and buy them a car.

      Phoenix light rail, for example, is going to cost so much it would actually be cheaper to buy every one of the *projected* riders (not actual – that actual number of riders is always significantly less than what’s in the revenue projections used to ‘justify’ this crap) a new Prius and gas for a year.

      1. But see, if you just GIVE the poor money, they are just going to use it on some dumb shit that they actually want. That’s why we need to have our betters direct this money at what they actually NEED, which obviously is something some unelected bureaucrats will be able to determine better than them themselves. Also, if we don’t get them to spend money properly, then it might not go to enough right thinking workers and unions, which means less donations for Democrats, and it would be possible for the Republicans to come take over and then the trains would start breaking down or be constantly getting shut down or some crazy shit that never happens now.

        Look, feudalism is the only thing separating us from feudalism, and if you don’t understand this you must be some racist right-winger.

      2. cities need to stop subsidizing mass transit of any sort.

        I agree with this. The poor can be reimbursed in some way. I won’t argue that I couldn’t afford to pay much more than I do to ride the subway every day.

        a decent working used auto can be had for 2-4k

        Plus 10K+ per year to operate it. You’re also ignoring the fact that some cities couldn’t possibly handle that many additional cars on the road.

        1. Then the incentives wouldn’t be there to drive to work, which could mean there was actual demand for private mass transit, which no one here would have a problem with, or people would need to alter their behavior in some other way.

          The free market is actually pretty damn good at solving these things on its own if you just get out of the way and let it.

          1. there was actual demand for private mass transit

            In older, denser cities there certainly would be demand but the union machine that rules all of them makes it impossible to see what the market would actually supply.

        2. “I agree with this. The poor can be reimbursed in some way. I won’t argue that I couldn’t afford to pay much more than I do to ride the subway every day.”
          Why don’t you move to a place you can afford?

          “You’re also ignoring the fact that some cities couldn’t possibly handle that many additional cars on the road.”
          WIH is that supposed to mean?

        3. It doesn’t cost anywhere near 10k/yr to operate a car.

          I spend something like $250 a year for insurance, fill up tank (25 gal) every two weeks (and I live in the boonies where its a 10 mile drive to the grocery store) for aprox $2,600/yr (when gas was $4 a gallon – its half that price right now). Call it an even $3k to give a cushion for repairs/tires.

          If you’re living in a place where its hard to make the 3-5k to run a car then you really need to move – either there are no jobs or you can find a job where the COL isn’t so insanely high.

          As for older cities not being able to support cars – I’ll admit you have a point, but consider that a huge percentage of the reason why they *still* can’t support cars is the entrenched forced subsidy for mass transit which removes the incentive to restructure the city to be more car-centric. And then there’s been the ability to carpool for a long time and now ride-sharing apps to make arranging carpools even easier.

          And I don’t understand the ‘the poor can be reimbursed in some way’ – reimbursed for what? The expense of getting to work? That’s what that paycheck the employer gives is for, same as for anyone else.

          1. Finally – suddenly ending mass transit subsidies might hurt people in a few of the oldest NE cities, the rest of the country would benefit immensely from the removal of incentives to constantly push light rail in the rest of the US cities – *none* of which are dense enough for it to make sense. Worse, light rail budgets cannabilize *bus* budgets so these poor people who can’t afford a car get shitter, ever more limited, service as the bus lines that actually connected their homes to their jobs go away to pay for trolleys to take rich motherfuckers to rich places to spend their rich money – you know, the people who *can afford* to spend $10k a year on their car.

            Its pretty much an ironclad rule that if you ‘have’ to subsidize something then that something really didn’t need to be done in the first place. That’s true whether or not its buses or solar panels.

            1. Not only that, but then they’ll cite that trip to the bus/rail station as an additional area that needs some other kind of subsidy to fill in that last ‘gap’, as if that’s the reason no one is using their shitty system.

  13. There’s a reason I’ve refused to work on the other side of the river since the mid-90s. Actually, there are many reasons, but the difficulties of getting in and (more importantly) out of the place are a big part of it. Working in DC simply isn’t worth the effort.

  14. I have absolutely no sympathy for that cesspool of big government called DC.

  15. I used that subsystem once. My experience was a 20 dollar card that didn’t work, and a lack of help to fix it as the subway stewardess was in a full blown yelling match with some ahole in a suit.

  16. Bureaucracy is a hell of a way to run a railroad.

    -jcr

  17. lol. spot on.

  18. A toxic work environment, unaccountable staff, and managers focused on microwaves and uniforms.

    Isn’t this how it should work?

  19. Isn’t the answer a bit simpler? The Metro system is a government agency, government agencies are inevitably a mess, and the DC Metro is no exception.

    What government agency isn’t as inefficient as can be? What agency doesn’t waste millions (if not more)? What agency doesn’t prioritize the well-being of its staff ahead of its public mission? What agency doesn’t over-promise and under-deliver? What agency doesn’t hide its incompetence from the public?

    1. It appears the Judge has joined the commentariat.

  20. A toxic work environment, unaccountable staff, and managers focused on microwaves and uniforms.

    Uh, you’re describing the hospital where I last worked.

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