To experience Washington's ugly underbelly, ride the metrodesktop
Money, management and a design foible makes for easy mayhem at Washington DC's 40-year-old Metrorail subway system
WASHINGTON DC, USA – Be it election time or not, Americans love to groan about Washington. They dismiss it as mired in nothing-works, nothing-gets-done gridlock. But the dysfunction runs deeper. Literally.
To taste another kind of inertia in the seat of world power, ride the city's awful, bumbling subway.
Murphy's law rules on the busiest US metro system after New York's: anything that can go wrong does go wrong on a once-admired but now-decaying network that carries more than 700,000 people a day.
Its main woes? Money, management and a design foible that makes for easy mayhem.
Trains, tracks, switches, brand new escalators – you name it – are always breaking down. Simple daily commutes morph into draining odysseys in a work-obsessed town where everybody's in a hurry.
Lights in cars go out, suddenly at times. Trains seem to be running fine, then abruptly stop, a problem is reported, and exhale their load of irate travelers. At rush hour on a bad day, station platforms can turn into seas of stranded people.
After a recent spate of fire and smoke incidents in tunnels, many users wonder if the system, now 40 years old, is even safe anymore.
"Every morning that I know I am going to be riding the train, I tell my wife which stations I will be going through so she will know, just in case something happens," Tom Broadman, a 49-year-old IT worker, said while riding a noisy, screeching Red Line train headed downtown.
"It's that bad. It's a nightmare."
"I actually changed jobs just to avoid having to use the metro," adds John Cunningham, a 28-year-old bank employee. "It's pathetic."
Bottom line: many Washingtonians find it appalling that a capital city from which vast military and diplomatic power are projected around the world cannot move trains reliably and safely from Point A to Point B.
On March 16, with just hours' notice, the entire system shut down for an unprecedented 29 hours so crews could inspect electrical cables that have sparked several blazes.
Things were not always this ugly. Metrorail, as the subway system is called, opened in March 1976 to much fanfare.
Its quiet, gleaming trains and high, arched station ceilings stood as a futuristic symbol of city and national pride in the year America celebrated its bicentennial.
"I remember riding the Metro for the first time and it was this shiny, new – it's like 'the Jetsons'. Like, 'Oh my God, this is the future,'" said Jack Evans, chairman of the board of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which runs Metrorail and the city's buses, recalling the summer of 1976 and the Hanna-Barbera science-fiction cartoon series.
But the system was created with two chinks that have proven costly as the subway expanded to keep pace with the metropolitan area's population growth, and money for repairs and upkeep became increasingly scarce.
First, while other subway systems in America were built with 3 or 4 tracks, Washington's has just two. This was done to save money.
That means that when a train breaks down or track work needs to be done, trains moving in opposite directions have to take turns sharing the same track and ensuing travel delays can be very long – a major gripe for riders.
Scrounging for money
Then there is money, and geography. Metrorail is unique in that it spans 3 jurisdictions – Washington, and the neighboring states of Maryland and Virginia, home to hundreds of thousands of people who work in the nation's capital.
Representatives of all 3 sit on the WMATA board, as do people from the federal government. This 4-headed structure complicates decision-making and has been criticized as diluting accountability for the sad state of Metrorail.
Most of the board's 16 members have no hands-on experience with mass transit; they are political appointees.
What is more, Metrorail lacks so-called "dedicated funding" for its $1.8 billion yearly operating budget: a tax or fee whose revenue goes only to keep the trains up and running.
Instead, Evans said, "Every year I have to go, Metro has to go, to 3 different jurisdictions to get money."
Plus, Metro needs billions of dollars in coming years to pay for improvement projects like new cars – most of those in use now are the original ones from 1976 – and a new tunnel under the Potomac River, Evans said.
"They are not things that it would be nice if we could do them. They are essential things, things you must do, and I don't have the money," Evans said.
He said the system is still mechanically safe but no longer a reliable way to get someplace on time.
Things will probably get worse before they get better, Evans added.
Paul Wiedefeld, who used to run the Baltimore-Washington international airport, took over as Metrorail's new general manager in November, assuming what was probably the least wanted job in the city at a really tense time.
The system suffered a surge in fire and smoke incidents last year; one woman died and scores were injured when smoke engulfed a downtown train in January 2015. A federal safety board report issued Tuesday blamed bad management and maintenance.
Wiedefeld has promised to present a long-term maintenance plan soon. And some have defended him for putting safety first and shutting down that day, knowing it would raise hell, which it did.
But Metro has few fans of late. After the March 16 closure, The Washington Post – unofficial arbiter and depository of things Washingtonian – called it a "national embarrassment, an amateur operation."
Days later, a Twitter user with the handle @ironmanjt wrote: "Passenger in front of me just crossed herself boarding #WMATA train and is now saying Hail Mary." – Daniel Woolls, AFP / Rappler.com
Twitter user with the handle @ironmanjt wrote: "Passenger in front of me just crossed herself boarding #WMATA train and is now saying Hail Mary."