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The Recent Metro Mess Must Now be the End

“. . . I can think of nothing worse than being smoked to death underground,” so exclaimed DC Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton during the specially called joint hearing on Friday, the 13th (how ironic!) of both the House oversight and government reform subcommittees.

It pleases us greatly that this terrible January 12th Metrorail calamity that occurred in the tunnel close to the L’Enfant Plaza station resulting in one death and numerous respiratory injuries has caught the attention of a specially constituted Congressional joint committee.

We were even further pleased that the committee not only called to testify the Metro board’s Chairman Downey along with DC fire officials, but also the acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) as well as officials of the unions representing the fire and emergency responders. To have all these personages in the same room together giving their version of the facts and responding to questions about what steps will be taken by all agencies — in the presence of each other –- was a good thing as it ought to ensure better overall accountability to the public.

It was frustrating for us –- even disheartening –- that over the past few weeks since the event that each entity has seemingly been trying to shift the blame to the other. At first we were impressed that our new mayor, Muriel Bowser, was impeccably circumspect and indicated that facts needed to be gathered before she would be prepared to state which entity, or entities, might have been at fault. But then, just a few`days later she came out and blamed Metro –- even before all the facts had been known. What her motivation for that about-face might have been was not apparent at the time.

What is apparent by now, however, was/is that there is plenty of blame to go all around; neither DC government nor Metro can justifiably fob off blame to the other. We trust that Mayor Bowser and Chairman Downey will equally push their respective bureaucrats and assorted minions to once and for all clean up every single apparent and potential safety matter.

Among the revelations to emerge during this hearing was the admission that even such a simple thing –- and what should have long ago been from the inside obvious to managers –- was that rail car doors that can be opened without need of a special device is not obvious to passengers; Downey has now pledged to remedy this. So simple, but apparently never, ever wondered about by all the various Metro personnel who have passed through the rail cars, either on regular duty or as inspectors.

Then there was the business about the fans which truly astounded us by the incredible revealed stupidity of how they had actually been positioned. Not only did Metro’s train control center screw up by not checking to determine if the tunnel fans were actually set to exhaust mode, but they negligently switched them so as to push the acrid and toxic smoke toward the train! Whoever did that should have already been fired!

And then there was the related business about the train’s own fans that the driver continued to allow sucking air into the cars rather than turning them off. What we learned was that train drivrers`are actually forbidden to take such action unless authorized by the control center. This is nuts! Would the captain of a ship which just got rammed by another causing water to start flooding in be prohibited from hitting the button to start closing the bulkheads in order to stave off the immediate sinking and thus save lives without first obtaining authorization from the shipping line’s headquarters? We think not.

Who makes these asinine policies anyway and why are management idiots like that even permitted to remain on the payroll? Would the train operator have been punished if he/she had shut down those fans on his/her own initiative knowing that to do otherwise would jeopardize lives? And in this instance one was lost.

Whether or not the train operator did seek permission is a question that, to the best of our knowledge, was not asked by any member of the joint committee; we wish it otherwise but do call on Metro to reveal the answer and to also tell us if the operator had done so on his/her own initiative whether he/she would have faced discipline.

There are so many other aspects of this sad business beyond what we have focused on here that have caught not only our attention but, for once, that of our politicians. It is to them that we ultimately must turn to ensure that all players within the DC government and Metro bureaucracies carry out their responsibilities competently and forcefully and –- most importantly –- cease making excuses for incompetence and coddling regular workers and their managers who are simply sliding by and not properly doing their jobs. There must never again be any condoning of compromise to public safety.