Metro and the Culture of Organizational Indifference

Silver Spring Transit Center, doomed to never open?

The empty Silver Spring Transit Center. Total cost: $125 million. And rising.

Every morning, I walk by the empty shell of the Silver Spring Transit Center. It was supposed to be a glorified bus shelter, where people could transfer from one bus to another. Construction began in 2008. Six years and $125 million later and it’s still not open.

Why? Because it’s unsafe. The concrete in the structure has started to crack and crumble. Who is responsible? Montgomery County blames the contractors; the contractors blame the subcontractors; the subcontractors say they just followed the Montgomery County specs; and so on. It’s a perfect circle of blamelessness, where no one is at fault.

On Monday, there was a fire in Metro, the subway system for Washington, DC. Smoke is not uncommon in the aging system.

I ride the Metro every day and can’t imagine a more nightmarish scenario than being trapped in a train car as it filled with smoke. People waited as the train operator assured them that help was on the way. They waited patiently for 45-60 minutes, in a tunnel, as smoke overwhelmed them. One person died; 83 others were sent to the hospital.

At the time, I tweeted:

Why won’t anything change? The people who manage, operate and oversee Metro have no incentive to change. General Manager Richard Sarles is retiring with a generous pension. Senior Metro executives will receive bonuses. The rich provisions of union contracts will continue to be honored. The Board of Directors will meet and chat. No one will be fired and everyone will find someone else to blame for this tragedy.

The attitude of this elite class of public sector professionals reminds me of Tom and Daisy from The Great Gatsby, after they ran someone over in another transit-related tragedy:

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

Except no one will clean up this mess. Fires, derailments and other safety hazards in Metro will continue and get worse.

Nothing will change at Metro until we make individuals accountable. That means firing everyone associated with Monday’s fire, including:

  • The Train Operator.
  • The Station Manager.
  • The Manager in Charge of Track Maintenance.
  • The Manager of Operations Control Center.

This should be done – at a minimum. It would be a small step to demonstrate that Metro takes this seriously.

Metro does not need to wait for the NTSB investigation to do this. Someone died in the system that they manage. There needs to be an immediate consequence for this tragedy.

Metro will say, “But we can’t fire anyone – they’re in a union.” Then the union should be abolished. Passenger safety is more important than organized labor. You cannot institute individual accountability with a labor union controlling hiring, firing and work rules.

Train arrives in Silver Spring #igdc #wmata

A train arrives in Silver Spring

Over the next few months, the familiar cycle of blame will set in. Metro will say that the accident is because the Board didn’t give them enough money; the Board will say that they did all they could; union will blame management; management will blame union; Metro will blame passengers; and on and on as everyone remains in their jobs. It will be business as usual – unless we demand better.

Washington is supposedly the land of the “best and the brightest.” And we have no want for resources – we literally print money in this city. If Metro is The Great Society Subway, then the failure to make it safe for riders is an indictment of the entire idea of big government.  Walter Olson at the Cato Institute nails it:

If the cream of the nation’s political class, living within a 50 mile radius in Virginia, Maryland, and D.C., cannot arrange to obtain competence from their elected local officials in delivering a public service that’s vital to their daily work lives, what does that tell us about their pretensions to improve through federal action the delivery of local government services – fire and police, water supply and schooling, road maintenance and, yes, transit itself – in the rest of the country?

Big government and other large organizations need to be made accountable. That means punishing people. To break the cycle of organizational indifference, then we have to ensure that there are real penalties for screwing up.

Metro must be reformed. Our lives depend on it.

 

About Joe Flood

Joe Flood is a writer and photographer from Washington, DC. He is the author of the mystery novel Murder on U Street, as well as articles, short stories and screenplays. In his spare time, he likes wandering about the city with a camera.