Worse yet, a serious collision recently caused minor injuries to 20 passengers and blocked the tracks for days. Accidents do happen, but investigation into this one showed Metro had ignored recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board after a similar accident years ago.
To add injury to insult, Metro runs advertisements urging riders to save themselves the hassle of driving and parking at Washington Redskins football games. Take Metro instead, we're told. And with the horrendous traffic we face in the Washington area, the pitch has appeal. Yet even while taking an $18,000 per-game fee from the Redskins to provide enhanced service for the games, Metro ran trains so infrequently that fans were stranded for hours.
Said one fan: "It was horrible. We paid a fare ? it wasn't like they were doing it for free."
No, not for free. At a loss.
Metro's problems, like those of public transportation across the country, can be summed up in the one word that transportation planners never utter: profit.
The problem, of course, being the lack of any. For Metro, profits are not even under consideration; they don't exist even as a pipe dream.
"It's a death spiral," says Metro Chief Executive Richard A. White. He's talking about Metro's need for more money to fix or replace aging equipment and to build an even bigger system to follow the population's changing travel patterns, while unable to handle the strains of increased ridership. But he may as well be talking about the lack of profit.
Users pay only about half of the annual cost of running Metro, much less the billions to build it. Without making a profit, Metro is hardly in a position to fix its crumbling infrastructure or expand its failing operation. In fact, since every customer represents a loss in revenue, it fears what most businesses desire: more customers.
The human side of the lack of profits is a deteriorating system that fails customers and leaves employees with lots of explaining to do. No wonder there is conflict between customers, promised a service, and employees, unable under the circumstances to deliver it.
In the private sector ? which, incidentally, has made America the world's biggest economic power ? profits are the bottom line, creating a system where products and services are produced and sold by enterprises that survive or die on profit, and thus a system whereby costs are contained and customers satisfied by that wonderful, almost magical force, known as self-interest.
People want to make money, so they constantly strive, on their very own accord, to cut the costs of providing that service. Then, they also strive to provide the service to more people and at greater value.
This is a foreign concept to Metro. And, as readers of my Common Sense e-letter have learned, profit is unthinkable to most of the putative problem solvers engaged in today's most intractable problem areas ? which is why those areas remain problems.
If there were a profit motive alive at Metro, it would not have taken four years to investigate its parking employees' million-dollars-per-year thieving habits.
A profit motive would cause managers to suggest selling customers food ? at a profit ? rather than arresting them for eating. It would suggest they fire station managers who threatened customers. An enterprise that was making a profit would see an advantage in keeping equipment working and saving capital to make expansion possible.
Without profit, enterprises must beg government for our tax dollars and find other measurements of "success." When Metro turned 25 years old back in 2001, Metro enthusiasts talked little about moving people efficiently from point A to point B. Instead, the Metro was called "an incredible social success," and was even credited as a "matchmaker" for bringing couples together.
Metro spends $9.4 billion to build a subway system and nearly a billion dollars a year to run it, only to claim credit for men and woman falling in love.
That's what we've come to expect from enterprises that spurn the very idea of profit.