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The DC Metro Crash and Your Transit Safety

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By Justin Horner

Like many of you, when I learned of the tragic Metro crash in Washington earlier this week, I was deeply disturbed. When you think about it, there’s something uniquely unsettling about being a passenger on something so big and powerful. When we walk, bike or drive, we’re accustomed to being in control. On trains and planes, the pleasure of being chauffeured means putting your safety in someone else’s hands. It can be upsetting when your trust is tested by unexpected events, particularly those that cause grave injury or death.

According to the latest reports, the cause of the crash, the deadliest in Metro’s history, killing 9 people and injuring 80, is still unknown. The train that collided into the other was overdue for brake work. One of the dead was the train’s operator, and an emergency brake was engaged before the collision. In California, we can’t help but be reminded of last September’s commuter rail crash in Los Angeles, where 25 people were killed.

Train travel has historically been very safe. As has been reported, the Federal Railroad Administration says that train accidents per mile dropped 30% from 1990 to 2008. But this gives little comfort in light of yesterday’s Metro crash, the collision in LA, and a trolley collision in Boston that injured 50 people. These three events have all happened in just the past 9 months.

Clearly, safety must be the highest priority. People cannot be expected to ride transit if they cannot do so safely, and they shouldn’t. Drivers and train operators must be well-trained, well-prepared, high-performing and attentive. Buses and trains must be well-maintained, up-to-date and reliable.

Just like our aging bridge and road infrastructure, our transit infrastructure must be supported and brought into the 21st Century. This not only means buying new trains and buses, but also securing the operating funds for the mechanics necessary to keep the vehicles we do have in tip-top shape.

But while we push for safer transit, we must also be aware of the larger picture. Transit still remains the safest, cleanest, and often cheapest, mode of travel. Private automobile travel remains by far the most deadly. As Todd Littman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute details, US transit passengers have about a tenth of the fatality rate of auto passengers:

Source: Bureau of Transportation Statistics, American Public Transportation Association, via Todd Littman

We should expect continued coverage of the Metro crash; it’s a serious incident and has directly touched the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of people. But we must also make sure that we focus on the particular circumstances of this accident, and what we can do to prevent similar incidents in the future.

Senators Rockefeller and Boxer are already pushing for $50 million in funding for train technology improvements. That’s a good start, but the Federal Transit Administration, in their Rail Modernization Study from April, tagged $50 billion as the amount needed to modernize the rail systems of Boston, Chicago, Washington DC, New York, New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area (America’s seven largest systems, which carry more than 80% of all rail transit passengers), not to mention the billions needed each year to keep them operating. The Stimulus Package contained only $8.6 billion for all transit investments in the entire country.

The upcoming Transportation Bill reauthorization is the forum in which NRDC will be pushing for this essential investment. An initial draft of the bill calls for a nearly $100 billion investment in public transportation, which will certainly get us moving down the road. The Metro crash has shown that there are perhaps more immediate reasons to act than just the environment.


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