Statement to the June 2012 WMATA RAC meeting

Earlier this evening, I delivered the following statement to the WMATA Riders’ Advisory Council during the public comment period of its June 2012 meeting:

As I hope you are aware, last week the NTSB released three reports into incidents on the Metrorail system, one of which resulted in the deaths of track workers Jeff Garrard and Sung Oh. I would hope that the RAC would request a presentation from WMATA on steps taken to improve safety in the wake of these accidents. Even more importantly, though, I would hope that the RAC would ask WMATA to publicly release documents to permit independent verification and oversight of the Authority’s claims on safety.

I understand that the RAC is not accustomed to conducting investigations, but for Jeff Garrard, Sung Oh, their colleagues, and the 1.5 million individuals who use Metro ever day, I ask you to consider the vital importance of holding WMATA accountable on such a serious issue as safety.

For reference, the NTSB reports mentioned above are the following:

  • RAB1205 (derailment in Farragut North pocket track)
  • RAB1204 (rear-end collision in West Falls Church yard)
  • RAR1204 (two track workers struck and killed by hi-rail vehicle outside Rockville)

Human factors in rail signalling accidents, and the role of backup systems

The October 2011 report of the WMATA Riders’ Advisory Council Chair contained a note indicating that a RAC member had requested (using the RAC’s investigative powers) documentation from the agency concerning, among other items, the “development of a real-time collision-avoidance system for Metrorail trains”, further defined as a system “designed to serve as a continuous backup system that would provide alerts to potential safety issues, and which would supplement Metrorail’s primary electronic system to prevent crashes”.

This piqued my interest, because it doesn’t sound like the sort of thing which is usually expected of a rail signalling system. Rail signalling systems are (as I’ll reiterate later) meant to be fail-safe, meaning that any failure must lead to the most restrictive signal indication being displayed. So long as the system is properly maintained (and that’ll turn out to be an often erroneous assumption), the system should not permit unsafe conditions to exist.

So, what sort of backup system could be implemented, and do we really need one? More importantly, are there more serious, systemic problems, which will hobble any system implemented?
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It’s still time for Carroll County to get on the bus

Carroll County’s newly-elected, all-Republican Board of Commissioners has been taking strong positions on a number of issues—one of which, the Baltimore Sun reports, is mass transit for the county:

“We don’t want subways or metro buses,” said Richard Rothschild, one of the new commissioners. “They are conduits for crime. That’s not politically correct, but it is factually substantiated.”

In rural communities—the kinds of places where people “mow [their] grass with tractors”—it’s entirely true that local bus service is logistically difficult, and often infeasible, because of the low density. Light rail, too, is unlikely to ever work in these places. But that doesn’t mean that transit and rural communities don’t mix. On the contrary, public transit can do a lot in rural communities to make commutes faster, easier and more environmentally friendly, while reducing road congestion.

The issue of transit in Carroll County is not at all a new one; in 2007 the Baltimore Sun’s Michael Dresser reported on bus bays at the Owings Mills Metro station which had “gone unused for 20 years”. These bus bays were originally intended for commuter bus routes serving destinations including Carroll County, which never came to fruition. As the Sun reported then, many Carroll County residents already commute to Baltimore, along roads which Dresser described as “a minor league version of Los Angeles”. Carroll County was—and is—growing, and Dresser’s prescription was commuter bus service, like MTA Maryland already operates to many destinations. It was, he said, “[t]ime for Carroll to get on the bus”. Four years later—and twenty-four years after those bus bays were built—it is still time for Carroll County to get on the bus, so to speak.
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SPAD mitigation at Brentwood Yard

While riding north on B1 track today, I noticed two new signs marked “SIGNAL B99 06 ON LEFT”, one at the north end of the platform at New York Ave., and one in the right-of-way. I assume this is a SPAD mitigation measure linked to recent incidents. As far as I know, this is the first time signs of this nature have been installed on the Metrorail system, although they are common elsewhere.

Reflective vests: not a target for terrorists; good for safety

In late May, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on an ongoing dispute between SEPTA and the BLET, the union representing SEPTA’s railroad engineers. As reported by the Inquirer, this dispute (which is itself part of broader contract negotiations) centers on the requirement that engineers wear reflective vests on the job, not just while on or about the track, as is already required, but at all times.

SEPTA’s request doesn’t seem unreasonable, but the union’s not having any of it. Their first argument is that the vests are unfashionable; one engineer claims that “[w]e look like the Fruit of the Loom lemon in those things”. But they don’t stop there; the union also claims that engineers should not have to wear reflective vests because “[t]hey have identified for any potential terrorist who the locomotive engineer is”. The idea that a terrorist would single out an individual in a reflective vest sounds like what Bruce Schneier would call a movie-plot threat. Bluntly, it’s just not a credible argument against the vests—and neither is complaining about them being unfashionable.
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