D.C.'s Dysfunctional Metro System Is a National Embarrassment

The D.C. Metro has perfected the art of replicating the traffic woes above ground in the tunnels below.


Eric Savage/Flickr

Beginning this week, passengers on the District of Columbia's Metrorail network—the six-line, spontaneous fire-prone train system known here as the D.C. Metro— can expect fare increases and service cuts.

As you might imagine, few in the area are pleased. A few days ago, the Washington Examiner declared that the city's rapid-transit system "is the worst in the world." I'll be generous and not go that far. The D.C. Metro is definitely not the dirtiest system I've ever experienced (I'm looking at you New York City), but the system is hardly a model of success, either. Deferred maintenance, poor planning by the original designers, a dysfunctional governance structure, and general incompetence and negligence on the part of management and staff have taken their toll since its 1976 opening.

All of these problems came to a head in 2009, when a crash near the Fort Totten station in Northeast D.C. killed nine people, including the train's operator, and injured 80. Following the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a report that identified failures at almost every level of The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), including actions taken by the train operator, maintenance workers, senior management, and control room operators.

The severity of this incident prompted a $5 billion capital improvement program, with nearly half of the money coming from federal grants. Metro finally had the funds it needed to make significant improvements, but as time dragged on it would become apparent that absent major structural reforms in how the WMATA functioned, that money would not be well spent.

In 2015 another headline-grabbing incident occurred near L'Enfant Plaza, in D.C.'s Southwest quadrant. An electrical malfunction caused a train to get stuck in a smoke-filled tunnel. One woman died and another 86 people were sent to the hospital. With public trust in the system at a new low, ridership dropped significantly.


As someone who has ridden plenty of rapid-transit systems outside of the U.S., I can attest to just how bad the D.C. Metro compares. Having ridden the Shanghai Metro for the past two years while a student at New York University Shanghai, I can recall a train stopping in between stations only once and for ten seconds at most. By contrast, my morning train into downtown D.C. last Friday stopped a total of five times between stations, the longest delay being almost five minutes. And this isn't even that bad comparatively, according to stories I've heard from longtime residents.

Some might gripe that making comparisons between D.C.'s system and those in Asia or even New York's sprawling network are unfair. After all, D.C. is neither as populated nor as dense as Shanghai, Tokyo, or New York. But even taking into account these differences, a lot of the Metro's dysfunction defies logic.

Shanghai's system, for instance, handles far more people and is way more overcrowded than the D.C. Metro. Yet in Shanghai, rush-hour headways—the amount of time between trains on the same track—can be as little as two minutes, with trains moving seamlessly from station to station at full speed. In D.C., the Metro has six minute headways during rush hour—at least on paper—which will soon increase to eight. Yet trains often run behind schedule and frequently have to stop in tunnels for trains in front of them to move.

If people wanted the experience of frequent breaking while crawling to their destination, they could just drive their cars during rush hour. Subways exist to provide public transportation that, unlike a bus, isn't subject to traffic jams. Unfortunately, the D.C. Metro has perfected the art of replicating the traffic woes above ground in the tunnels below. This is despite all the years and additional money the WMATA has had to fix the maintenance problems behind these daily delays.

As I write this, part of the Red Line, the system's busiest, has been shutdown. From mid-May to mid-June, all Orange Line stations in Maryland, as well as some in D.C., were shut down. There are weekends where all six lines are impacted by track work.

At least some of the dysfunction stems from the WMATA's awful work culture. "Consciously or subconsciously, everyone at Metro knows they've got a job for life, unless they sit there and smoke crack in the middle of the platform," a former WMATA mechanic told the Washingtonian in 2015.

Falsified safety inspection reports are rampant—last December, nearly half of the system's track inspection department were facing facing disciplinary action over falsified safety records that came to light after a July 2016 derailment near the East Falls Church Metro station in northern Virginia.

Meanwhile, an employee who falsified inspection-records regarding ventilation fans near L'Enfant Plaza, where the deadly accident in 2015 occurred, may be getting his job back, thanks to the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689. "The public is safer with [Seyoum] Haile, an experienced, proven, competent mechanic, chastened to ensure accurate records of his work, than with some unknown, untested and likely less skilled mechanic," union lawyers claimed.

An arbitration panel decided that instead of firing him, Haile should get a six-month suspension. The court found in April that Metro didn't meet its legal burdens for overturning the arbitration ruling, even though the judge deciding the case openly admitted that Mr. Haile's termination "may even have been the more just outcome here."

The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 is the union that employs a significant majority of WMATA workers. If you read an article recently published in the Washington Post by the union president, Jackie Jeter, you would think the union had nothing to do with the problems at the WMATA. It's demonstrably false.

Jeter, along with other union representatives, has recently been touting the union's plan to fix the WMATA. The plan has some grand ideas, but few well-thought-out ones. The most notable is the call for a $2 flat fare. Not only is this not feasible with the WMATA's current financial situation, but it's terribly misguided. If there's one thing the Metro has going for it, it's the current distance-based pricing system with surge pricing during rush hour. Arguments could be made that fares at all levels are too high, but the fare structure itself is not a problem.

The union decries the current system as "too complicated" and points out that most U.S. rail systems use flat fares. That's actually true, but most major systems in other countries use distance-based pricing and for good reason: flat fares create an incredibly distortionary price environment.

If the fare is set at the highest distanced-based fare, only people with long commutes would use the system. If the fare is set at the lowest distance-based fare, the system wouldn't make any money. What results is a fare that is somewhere in the middle and that's not as good as it sounds. Riders who only go short distances and/or use the system when it's not rush hour end up subsidizing people with long commutes during peak times. Conversely, long and/or rush hour commutes are much cheaper than they should be and people who otherwise might avoid commuting at those hours would be incentivized to do so, further exacerbating overcrowding.

Jeter has been highly critical of WMATA General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld for "blaming labor costs for Metro's problems," but the fact of the matter is 74 percent of the agency's operating costs are labor-related. To not address that would be foolish. If the agency wants to be able to spend more money on fixing the sorry state of its rail infrastructure, then bloated pensions, excessive overtime payments, and six-figure salaries for some of the agency's employees need to be addressed.

Privatization would be the best idea. In Hong Kong and Tokyo, private companies run clean, efficient systems that don't cost a fortune. These systems, which use distance-based pricing, have farebox recovery ratios—the percentage of operating costs covered by fare revenue—that are far higher than the D.C. Metro. Hong Kong's MTR, in particular, makes a healthy profit just from fare revenue. Contrary to those who claim the WMATA suffers because of a lack of dedicated government funding, reliance on fare revenue actually incentivizes improved service. Until the WMATA's byzantine governance structure is overhauled and its labor contracts rewritten, any revenue promises should be tied to the implementation of major reforms.

Of course, advocates for privatization face a long, uphill battle. The Amalgamated Transit Union certainly would not be on board. "Privatizing Metro can only make our troubled rail system worse," wrote Jeter. As if that were even possible.

Maybe one day our nation's capital will have a Metro to be proud of. One that has on-time trains, a good safety record, and a clean balance sheet. A commuter can dream can't he? Until then, the city that serves as the headquarters of our federal government will, fittingly, have the Metro it deserves: a slow and expensive one.

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46 responses to “D.C.'s Dysfunctional Metro System Is a National Embarrassment

  1. What ever they do, don’t let a private company with a profit motive in there.

    We must guarantee worthless government worker parasites at all costs.

    1. Exsqueeze me:

      “The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 is the union that employs a significant majority of WMATA workers.”

      Presumably this an error, otherwise Local 689 may be a contributing factor.

    2. Can’t be done. Public transit is not profitable in DC.

  2. It’s sad when the progs would rather have higher costs and lower quality, just because in their cult, Government is God and private enterprise is a sin. See: Public Transportation, Education, everything else…

    1. But. god forbid, the fares go up. The only time the progs want to do away with “free riders” is for mandated health insurance.

  3. Having ridden the Shanghai Metro for the past two years

    So of course the answer is that DC doesn’t provide enough government control to make sure the Metro runs well.


    1. In China, public corruption can carry the death sentence. So there’s some incentive there.

      1. Only for the low level bureaucrats, though.

  4. D.C.’s Dysfunctional Metro System Is a National Embarrassment

    No it isn’t. Approximately 99.9% of the people outside DC don’t give a shit about the DC Metro. If they did give a shit, it’d be to note the DC Metro is probably symbolic of DC in general. Jackasses that couldn’t find their own ass with both hands and a map thinking they’re smarter than you and therefore entitled to your money so they can spend it on some massive fuck-up.

  5. I used to ride SF Bay Area BART quite a lot, and it was snicker-friendly awful. Automated to the extent that sometimes a “driver” would get on the platform to help somebody and the train would take off and run properly without him. Headway was an awful 10-15 minutes most places most times; idiots had designed it with a lot of single tracking and with a custom wide gauge. Any dead train would take hours to haul clear, blocking everything.

    I had ridden it a few times before I got to Japan and ride Tokyo subways. What a difference! The oldest line, Ginza, had headway of a minute or two during rush hour, and was so old that when it crossed electrical boundaries, each car in turn would switch to the red emergency lights for the second or two it took to cross.

    I’ve ridden BART since, and I don’t think it’s gotten any better.

  6. The Metro work force is 98% black. If I was anywhere near the area, I would so ride minority preference into a beautiful, effortless retirement.

  7. “National Embarrassment” is a stretch.

    1. So is labeling MJGreen as Reason’s most unlikable commenter, and yet we all continue to do so.

      1. No, he is just the most insufferable. But he is quite likeable.

        1. Agreed (second sentence).

    2. Nice band name, though. Or Nick Cage movie title.

      1. In a world where a state-sized embarrassment just won’t do, Nicholas Cage…

  8. So we have extreme hyperbole (“national embarrassment”) combined with trumpeting of Statism (yay, Shanghai!).

    Hooray, Reason!

    1. I think that was more like Ben just burnishing his resume for us all to see more than anything.

      Having ridden the Shanghai Metro for the past two years while a student at New York University Shanghai, I can recall…”

      Overall not a bad article, but the D.C. Metro is pretty low hanging fruit. They really are a national embarrassment, or at least they would be if foreign dignitaries visiting D.C. weren’t driving around in bomb-proof SUV’s or helicopters.

      I imagine their staff take the train sometimes, and I’d bet it makes for a potent metaphor between what’s on the surface and what’s underneath.

      1. I’m sure DC Metro has it’s problems. But if you get into the comparison game, you should be making some sort of attempt to explain why. It doesn’t looking like Ben pointed out anything about the way DC Metro operates that uniquely explains its suck factor vs. other public sector operated transit systems.

  9. Jeter has been highly critical of WMATA General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld for “blaming labor costs for Metro’s problems,” but the fact of the matter is 74 percent of the agency’s operating costs are labor-related.

    Jesus Christ, that’s insane…everywhere I’ve worked the labor part of the budget is usually around 10% or so. I can’t even wrap my head around 70%, but I live in a right to work state.

    1. 70% seems about right for a service industry when the capital costs are removed from the budget.

      1. Yeah, it occurred to me immediately after posting that. I also have literally zero idea how much train maintenance would even cost sans labor, so that’s not doing me any favors since my head says ‘a whole bunch’ but the article says ‘they probably don’t bother with it’.

  10. The drop in ridership coincides with the election of Trump. About a hundred thousand career bureaucrats left DC because their swamp had been drained.


    1. They haven’t slowed down building new condos and apartments though. Those high rises keep getting built.

  11. “The public is safer with [Seyoum] Haile, an experienced, proven, competent mechanic, chastened to ensure accurate records of his work, than with some unknown, untested and likely less skilled mechanic,” union lawyers claimed.

    They made the same argument when George W. Bush was up for re-election. Pay no attention to the mess he’s made! He’s got experience.

  12. By contrast, my morning train into downtown D.C. last Friday stopped a total of five times between stations, the longest delay being almost five minutes. And this isn’t event that bad comparitively, according to stories I’ve heard from longtime residents.

    I was stuck between stations for 45 minutes in Seattle once. A bus had broken down on the tracks. Intellectuals crafted a plan to have buses driving on the same tracks as the train.

    1. Still beats the street car traveling in the same lane as cars (H Street, DC).

      1. We have that too, and it occasionally kills someone on a bicycle, so I’m inclined to expand that system.

        1. Plus, I Rode the S.L.U.T. shirts are fun.

  13. The intern drops the gloves! Very nice.

    The lack of alt text, however, is an insult to not only every silly bronze medal Welch was bragging about earlier in the day, but to the very idea of liberty.

  14. Maybe Ben Haller is angling for a trip to the UK. All the comparisons are with Far East – student?

    The UK surface and underground rail system is probably the oldest in the world – Stevenson’s ‘Rocket’ (?) – and have gone through all the permutations of private versus public owners even to this day.

    And yes, the general public subsidize the commuters into London and any attempt to raise ticket prices on these routes results in severe resistance.

    Maybe Reason need to have an overall basic knowledge of a subject when vetting the input.

  15. This is not in any a national embarrassment.
    It is an embarrassment to the local politicians who set it up.
    It is an embarrassment to the incompetent management.
    It is an embarrassment to the union who cannot provide competent workers.
    It is an embarrassment tot the congress who continues to fund it without mandating corrections.
    But is is not in any a national embarrassment.

  16. To be fair, some of the nicest subway employees where with the D.C. Metro. I guess unlike their management, they understand that D.C. is still a tourist town and they don’t want tourists heading home with bad stories.

    Management is awful however, but thankfully a couple of workers explained how the system worked. They knew I was a tourist because I was the one standing there with 20 cents short on my ticket. Only tourists are dumb enough to buy a ticket at the stated price. Bless those workers who let me jump the gate!

    Ditto for the taxi drivers who let me use a credit card despite congress not wanting taxis to accept credit cards. Ditto for the bartenders who make the best damn drinks in the world, and the chefs who cook the best damned steaks. Really, D.C. would be a wonderful city if only we could figure out how to get the government out of there…

    1. To be fair, some of the nicest subway employees where with the D.C. Metro.

      What DC Metro system have you been riding? You’re being ironic, right? Every Metro employee I’ve interacted with has been some combination of gruff, disinterested and incomprehensible.

      1. It’s all relative. Compared to San Francisco’s BART, they’re like Mother Theresa.

  17. Also, nice Fallout 3 reference there in the story photo…

  18. Contra a bunch of comments above, I do think this is a national embarrassment. And it peeves me as someone far away from the left wing rathole that is DC, that I am forced through income confiscation and redistribution to contribute to the corrupt, literally homicidal dysfunction that is the DC Metro.

  19. I am from Maryland and I worked in DC 6+ years, from 2006 to 2012. For the first 3+ years I worked right near Union Station so my commute consisted of the MARC train. After 3+ years, I changed jobs and at that point I needed to start using public transportation. At first I used the Metro, but eventually I switched to either riding the Circulator or walking 2+ miles to my office, because either of these options was cheaper, more reliable, and faster then taking the Metro. I think my last year working in DC I may have ridden the Metro less then 5 times. It truly is an embarrassment and a boondoggle of epic proportions.

  20. What I find remarkable about Metro is that it can’t even leave an end station on time. I always wonder why they even bother with a schedule. They are never on time. The new manager has done a lot of good but ultimately he’s like Trent Dilfer, who took the Ravens to the Superbowl and was then released, he should be replaced. The reason being that the intention to cut service and raise rates is the WRONG direction. He’s been instrumental in the track repairs and I applaud that, but cutting service and raising rates is stupid, utterly stupid and typically Washington DC….

  21. The scary thing about that distance pricing system is the way it imprisons you as passenger?you have to ransom yourself out of it at your destination.

  22. No mention of the fact that the Metro is run largely by blacks who work to exclude whites in the workforce? Ever go to a Metro station and watch the Metro staff members joking and lounging around? That’s how the whole organization works. But “diversity”, right?

  23. Once again a government employees union causes immense problem. Arguing that a member and employee of the Transit system makes the system safer after having falsified safety reports, arguably a felony, is nonsense, If the union is going to defend this type of conduct, then the union needs to go. Privatize the system and allow it to be union free.

  24. The Metro work force is 98% black. If I was anywhere near the area, I would so ride minority preference into a beautiful, effortless retirement.
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  25. Nice band name, though. Or Nicolas Cage movie title.
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  26. As someone who lives in the DC area and has a little bit of inside knowledge it is even worse than this article describes. Nepotism, favoritism is the primary source of hiring within Metro. Night workers/inspectors often had one person clock in and out for a number of them while the rest did not even show up for work. Speak out and you get fired not the ones that are stealing their paychecks.

  27. Terrible service, but how is it worse than every other government operated transportation system in other cities in the US?

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