Nine people have died in the Washington D.C. metro system in the past seven years. Hundreds more have been injured. Recent incidents include last year's horror story about smoke entering the tracks at L'Enfant Plaza station, where a woman lost her life after inhaling the substance. The incident exposed the system's inability to communicate with passengers during an emergency.
The dangerous environment within the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority made Wednesday's House Oversight hearing on the metro a necessity.
Long gone are the days when the D.C metro was considered the "gold standard of service, " Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) lamented at the meeting. The smoke incidents, coupled with cracked rails, train derailments and daily delays, have resulted in ridership declining by 6 percent, the committee noted.
Most displeased with the system, however, was Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA), based on his decibel level.
"A culture of mediocrity is no longer accepted," he loudly insisted.
The representative shared how he took a ride on the orange line, which extends into northern Virginia, to speak to commuters as a hands on way to gauge their opinion the transit system. In an ironic sign of the state of affairs, Connolly said the operators discovered two cracked rails during the trip, which caused delays and headaches for him and his fellow riders.
Some signs, however, indicate WMATA is ready to move forward. The lawmakers had praise for the new general manager of WMATA, Paul J. Wiedefeld. After a 10-month drought, his leadership was badly needed. Representatives like Barbara Comstock (R-VA) thanked Wiedefeld for reaching out to them in his efforts. Connolly, who said Wiedefeld is "the right leader at the time," commended the new GM's bold decision to shut down the whole metrorail system for 24 hours last month after a fire broke out at McPherson Square station. It may have increased road traffic and forced many employees to telework, but the shutdown allowed metro to assess which tracks need the most attention.
In regards to fixing the safety shortfalls, the oversight committee indicated that metro is taking a total of 50 actions to improve the system and the National Transportation Safety Board will be employing 91 changes. In addition to these system upgrades, metro will be ushering in personnel changes, cutting down on "redundant" positions, improving training courses, and hiring a new Chief Safety Officer.
The financial aspect is similarly frustrating. No other transit system in America is quite so highly subsidized as Washington's, the lawmakers note. Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) asked the question many passengers are wondering: "Why even spend money" on WMATA and NTSB if no lessons are learned?
The Metro needs to regain the public trust if it wants to accept any more taxpayer money free of guilt, the lawmakers suggested.
With new management and a new attitude, can Metro return to its golden days?