How JFK Killed the DC Metro

Government-union intransigence has made the DC Metro unsafe and unreliable.

The Washington Post recently published "Nine things about the Tokyo subway that will drive Washington commuters crazy."

The Washington, DC Metro was once considered to be one of the best subway systems in the United States; it's certainly among the more recently designed.  Yet in comparison with the metro systems in Japan, it's third world.

In Japan, the trains run on such exact schedules that you can set your cell phone alarm to wake you up just before your get to your station and walk out the door without even checking to see where you are.  Hardly anyone talks on the subway, and the toilets are spotless.  Several of the lines, notably the Keio suburban line that continues into the subway system through central Tokyo, are even privately-owned and operate at a profit.

The Post reports that the DC Metro, in contrast, is in dire straits both financially and with respect to maintenance.

Metro's failure-prone subway - once considered a transportation jewel - is mired in disrepair because the transit agency neglected to heed warnings that its aging equipment and poor safety culture would someday lead to chronic breakdowns and calamities. The on-time rate for Metro trains, which hovered above 90 percent for most of 2012, was down to 84 percent last year because of "railcar, power and track equipment problems" that "led to longer and more variable travel times".

The average delay in the Japanese system, in contrast, is 18 seconds.

Under-Designed from the Start

The basic problems go back to brain-dead design decisions at the very beginning.

In the first place, the DC Metro was built with but two tracks; on its heaviest-used sections, New York's subway system has four tracks.  DC also has very few pocket tracks where disabled and spare trains can be parked out of the way until needed; Japanese systems regularly have stretches with a third track for passing purposes.

The decision not to follow these successful examples was made to hold down costs and minimize public disruption during the construction work.  Alas, now there is too little room in the narrow tunnels for maintenance and repair crews and hundreds of thousands of commuters together.

The extra track sections offered in New York and Tokyo allow express trains to leapfrog past locals.  With only two tracks, though, all Washington trains must stop at every station and go the same speed.  If there's a breakdown, all the trains are stuck.

That may have been OK, barely, when none of the Metro lines were very long, but consider the line currently being extended out to Dulles airport.  Without express trains, the ride will take a long time, yet even though this new line is being built above-ground where construction is much cheaper, they still aren't bothering to make any provision for express service.

The Post also takes a swipe at automation. The article pooh-poohs the agency's early faith in automation - that computers would negate human error - which seemed to stunt the development of a safety culture, resulting in disasters.  They make it seem that the many recent accidents are rooted in a misguided attempts at over-automating the trains as opposed to the failure to instill a culture of safety and public service.

In September 1970, less than a year after Congress gave the go-ahead for the subway to be built, three federal agencies published a joint report warning that Metro, in relying heavily on automation, was too cavalier about the potential for human mistakes in train operations. ... Those concerns, over time, would turn out to be prescient, as technical malfunctions, some involving automation, as well as faulty communications and poor training, contributed to rail accidents that killed 14 people: three in 1982, one in 1996, nine in 2009 and one last year. Two of the dead were train operators, and the rest were passengers.

The article went on to describe several other accidents which the Post attributed to misplaced faith in automation.  Their assumption seems to be that computers can never be depended on and the Metro was stupid to try.

Yet is that our experience in everyday life?  What's more reliable - an ATM, or a manned McDonald's drive-thru?  What's more, there are fully-automated subway systems all over the world that run safely and well, in countries like Brazil, Malaysia, India, and even the Phillipines.  Is America truly unable to do something that the Filipinos manage to make work?

No - because, in fact, there are quite a few fully-automated metro systems in the United States.  They just aren't called that, because they are found in and around airports.  Tampa, JFK, Dulles, O'Hare, San Francisco, Atlanta, and many more have trains driven purely by computers with nary an accident, but they're trains on tracks just the same.

Not Learning Any Lessons

The Post expressed a degree of cynicism about the promised repairs, and for good reason: The Metro has been through this sort of safety panic before, without any improvement.

Metro reached a milestone this month when General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld announced a "massive effort" to address safety problems and speed up the rail system's rehabilitation.

The thing about milestones is that there's one every mile. And the 40-year-old Metro system has a lot of miles on it.

Wiedefeld, who took over in November, wants to accelerate the maintenance program that was accelerated five years ago.

The article went on to explain how Richard Sarles, Mr. Wiedefeld's predecessor had announced in 2011 that maintenance would be done faster and nothing much happened.  Evidently, Mr. Sarles' program wasn't aggressive enough to overcome bureaucratic inertia, since we're right back where we started.

Yet for all the well-placed cynicism, does it not occur to the Post that it doesn't have to be that way?  In what other industry would we tolerate continual failure without people being sacked or companies going bust?  The Post itself gleefully reported on the conviction and imprisonment of Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy where 29 miners were killed in a coal mine due to safety failures.  Metro hasn't killed quite that many passengers.  On the other hand, the Massey employees at least were getting paid, whereas Metro passengers are expected to pay for the privilege of risking their lives.

Shouldn't the Post, for consistency's sake if nothing else, at least mildly suggest the possibility of personal legal liability for responsible incompetents?  This very real threat in all sorts of other fields has led to the enormously improved safety we see everywhere compared to a century ago.

The Feds Arrive To Help

The Post continues, telling us that the Metro has so many problems that the Federal government has chimed in.

Metro said Thursday that it will change the schedule for a huge, year-long subway rebuilding project in an effort to accommodate a new rail-repair directive from the federal government.

Unsurprisingly, the Feds have directed the Metro to give "first priority" to projects which the Feds consider to be most important.  It's hard to say who's right on this: it seems illogical that federal bureaucrats can more accurately know what's important than the people who work in the tunnels every day, but it's not as if the Metro has been demonstrating much competence either.

Then there's the paperwork problems: the metro management isn't sure they can rearrange their project schedule to meet the unexpected federal directive.  Even if they can, the extra planning time will just mean more delays and more cost.  What's worse, the Feds want some of the work to be started now instead of waiting until school is out when Metro shutdowns would be less disruptive.

As you'd expect from their leftist perspective, the Post glosses over the utterly brain-dead management structure and doesn't even mention the problems caused by the capture of the operating agency by politically-powerful unions who ensure their members remain unaccountable for laziness, incompetence, or negligence.

Venality from Day One

From the beginning, the Metro was handicapped by its awkward management structure.  Time magazine observed that the Metro is run by a dysfunctional crazy-quilt of overlapping jurisdictions: the District of Columbia, the state of Virginia, the state of Maryland, and the federal government.  Although it needs hundreds of millions of dollars worth of subsidies each year, it has to wheedle money out of the many governments which supposedly manage it.  All of the politicians involved would far rather attend ribbon-cuttings for prestigious new buildings than pay for routine maintenance of infrastructure that's largely underground.

There are similar problems with multi-state agencies such as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.  The governors of both states appoint members of the governing board.  Since the two states don't always get along well, there is effectively no management and the Authority is often free to do whatever it wants.

For example, the Authority put up the original World Trade Center towers even though running office buildings had little to do with its mission of managing transportation infrastructure.  The New York Times reports that from the very beginning, there were lawsuits about the way the Authority followed the New York City fire prevention codes in applying fireproofing material to the steel beams that held up the building.

...Years of inspections had revealed that whole sections of the original fireproofing had fallen away and other sections had deteriorated, leaving the steel inadequately protected.

These long-running arguments about safety in the Authority's building are similar to the Post's discussions of long-running maintenance issues at the Metro:

For nearly half a century, almost since construction of the subway system began, federal experts, civic and business groups, private transit organizations, and some Metro general managers and directors have raised red flags.

From the beginning the Metro management has complained about not being given enough money.  It seems passing strange, then, that they haven't spent the money they've been given:

And yet the agency has failed to use all the funds available to it. From 2011 to 2015, Metro spent only $3.7 billion of $5.1 billion that was budgeted. The reason? A recent Metro report cited an array of factors, including "insufficient management controls" and delays in executing contracts by both Metro and its vendors.

What?  A government agency unable to spend the money it's been given?

Actually, unspent money isn't unprecedented in transportation agencies.  The Boston Herald reports that the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has more than a billion unspent dollars left in the maintenance budget.  The Herald observed that a major reason the MBTA can't get the work done is because the unionized employees can get up to 60 days off each year.  Even if you have the money, it's hard to fix problems when the work force doesn't show up.

The Post wasn't nearly as blunt about the Metro union as the Herald was about the MBTA union, but it did hint at the issue:

Workers and managers resisted efforts at reform because they were set in their ways and because they were more concerned about keeping revenue-producing trains running on time, some former officials said. ...

"What I found at [Metro], you would set up a [safety] training session and two-thirds of the people wouldn’t show up," ...  [emphasis added]

"Set in their ways" is a polite way of saying that they didn't care much about problems and didn't want to work particularly hard.  Time was more direct:

But a minor railcar shortage had slowed the Red Line to a crawl, and the platforms were crammed–a sight so familiar that the station manager barely reacted. Wiedefeld, [the new Metro General manager] however, was stunned. "I blew a gasket," he recalls, sitting in his downtown office at a conference table plastered with transit maps. "This organization has become numb."

He shouldn't have been so surprised.  Organizations staffed by unionized government employees generally become "numb" to concerns for actually serving the public.

Just like workers at the DMV, VA, or any number of other non-uniformed government agencies, Metro employees care nothing for passenger service.  Indeed, they're far from the worst: Veterans Administrations employees don't even mind veterans dying while waiting for service, whereas Metro deaths appear to disturb the management at least a little.

We've pointed out that this problem goes back to President John F. Kennedy giving government employees the right to unionize in order to reward the labor unions whose corrupt voting frauds had helped put him in the White House.  Thanks to this venal kickback, government workers effectively can't be fired, so they don't have to do much work.  Managers rationalize non-performance with the thought that the agency can always get more money from the taxpayers.  Nobody really cares about performance as the Japanese transit employees do.

In the words of Ed Rendell, the then Democratic mayor of Philadelphia, "It became clear to me that we had an incentiveless work force. Through work rules, and past practices, and the overall collective bargaining, and because of civil service, we had created a system of management where we had taken out every incentive for performance ... The most difficult job in Philadelphia ... was being a middle-level manager and trying to get motivation out of your work force."
The Commanding Heights, p 373

Time said that the new Metro manager intends to try to change this:

Wiedefeld summoned some 650 senior managers for a state-of-the-organization meeting at a concert hall in suburban Maryland. It was the first such gathering in Metro’s 40-year history, and one of the first orders of business was explaining to the staff why he had written a memo warning that they could all be fired. "I'm certain many of you thought, What a jerk," Wiedefeld said.

Perhaps part of the problem is found in this very paragraph: how exactly is it that a railroad system operating a mere 117 miles of track needs six hundred and fifty senior managers?  That's more than six senior managers per mile of track!  Maybe Mr. Wiedefeld should merely dispatch each of his 650 senior managers to personally watch over one-sixth of a mile of track, with a few spares for special problem spots?

It's well known that bureaucracies respond only to the whisper of the ax.  It remains to be seen whether the new Metro manager will be permitted to fire enough layabouts to get some actual performance out of the balance of his "work" force.  If he's right about their thinking him a jerk for saying they could be fired, he'll have to stage a few spectacular firings to make it clear that he can do that.

Thus far, it hasn't happened.  If he's truly unable or unwilling to fire non-performers, nothing will change, the Metro will remain 3rd world, more passengers will die, and more and more citizens will realize that as currently constituted, our government is in fact unable to accomplish anything constructive.

The poisoned fruit of President Kennedy's paying back the unions for helping him is becoming more and more visible.  Private sector workers have learned that unionization means their employer will go out of business.  We aren't sure how fast municipal bankruptcies as in Detroit, Chicago, and Puerto Rico will multiply, but the result can't be good.

In the meantime, unless we fire a whole lot of unneeded or non-working people, public transportation will continue to get worse and worse as equipment wears out faster than it can be maintained no matter how much money we throw at the problem.

Lessons That Must Be Learned

It shouldn't take a rocket scientist to figure this out, but incoherent management is a recipe for waste.  The Port Authority reports to two different state governments, and whenever they disagree, management can do pretty much whatever it wants, just as kids can do whatever they want when parents disagree.  If anything, Metro management is worse because it's under four different governmental entities.

Single-state management, too, is a recipe for disaster.  The New Jersey Turnpike Authority accumulated enough money to build a money-losing Garden State Arts Center, which has about as much to do with running highways as the World Trade Center had to do with managing airports, even though the Turnpike Authority answers to just one single state.

Blanket subsidies to transportation systems are recipes for waste, for the very simple reason that the incentives are perverse.  The way American rail subsidies work today, the relevant legislature budgets a certain amount per year, pretty much no matter what.  The transit authority can beg for more and sometimes gets it, or it might get cut in economic downturns, but there's absolutely no direct connection between revenues and service to the public.

In fact, the opposite is true: Hauling around passengers costs money, if only for electric bills and wear and tear on the trains.  The WMATA budget has revenue about equally split between the subsidy and ticket fares.  This means that one more passenger brings in just about what it costs to haul him around.  Why should the Metro be bothered with the annoyance of dealing with passengers when they get half their money regardless?

If we truly believe that we must subsidize public transit as a way to bribe commuters not to clog the roads, at the very least we should make subsidies depend directly on the number of riders to give the authority some incentive to attract more customers.  If WMATA had to earn its subsidy by being given, say, a dollar for each mile traveled by one paying passenger - independently verified of course - you'd see a quite different attitude displayed.

But the most important lesson of all can be seen coast to coast, from the police department of Philadelphia to the ruins of Detroit to the LA Unified School District: Unionization destroys the ability of any organization to get anything done because slackers can't be fired.  At least with unionization of private businesses, the businesses eventually go bankrupt and destroy the union.  That's why we no longer have much of a textile workers union in the United States, nor much of a textile industry either.

Governments rarely go bankrupt and never shut down for lack of cash; they just use their monopoly on force to rob what they need from whoever is handy.  There's no natural limit on how much leeching a public-sector union can get away with, until the entire society collapses in anarchy and chaos.

If we don't want Washington, DC to end up like Detroit, General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld has his work cut out for him, but he surely won't get much help or encouragement from the Post.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Bureaucracy.
Reader Comments

So if you work on the subway system, and you do a lousy job, what happens ? Nothing. Eventho it is a government job, there has to be some responsibility for doing it right. In my trips to Japan, there is some pride in doing a job right. Here, you get paid even if you don't show up for a government job. Guess which one has the best service experience ?

June 2, 2016 8:20 PM
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