Transit tragedy

There isn’t much I can say about the tragic subway crash in Washington, D.C.  Obviously, thousands (if not millions) of people rely on Washington’s system, and to see several people die on their rush-hour commute is deeply saddening to me.

Even with recent accidents in Boston and Los Angeles added to it, I would hope observers would not suddenly conclude that transit has become increasingly less safe.  Nevertheless, preliminary reports on the Washington incident indicate some safety-related expenses may have been skipped.  From the Washington Post:

“Debbie Hersman, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the safety agency asked the Metrorail system to add data recorders after a 2004 crash and found it unacceptable that the system had not done so. The train that was struck was more modern and did have recorders, she said, which will provide some information about conditions at the time of the crash.

After the 2004 recommendations, the Metro system considered retrofitting the older cars to make them better able to withstand the impact of a collision, but concluded it was too complicated and expensive to do so. However, Metro officials say some safety related improvements were made to those trains, including upgrades to the braking systems and the emergency exits.

Hersman and Catoe emphasized at the news conference that the cause of the collision, just outside the Fort Totten station in Northeast Washington, is not yet known. While more crash-worthy rail cars likely could have reduced the number of dead and the severity of injuries, it is too early to say whether different or improved rail cars could have prevented the collision.

NTSB investigators will be looking at possible mechanical causes, signal failures and operator training, among other issues, Hersmann said.”

I would only say, in closing, that one hopes accidents like this one underscore the critical importance of funding not just for expansion of transit but, as for highways and roads, for the minimum amount of maintenance to ensure safe travel.  It’s not sexy for politicians to approve funding for stuff people can’t see–they want to approve new roads and lines.  But we have to do this dirty work to prevent tragedies like this.

One postscript: I found it particularly moving that one of the people involved in the Washington crash helped victims and then got back on Metro and took it home, just as he was intending to do earlier.  “Griffith then walked to the Fort Totten Station and took the Metro home to Northern Virginia, still wearing the black pants and white dress shirt he’d had on at the crash scene.

“People were looking at me strange,” he said. “I had blood all over me, none of it my own.”

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