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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Station names are about system usability, not neighborhood identity

Note: This article was cross-posted to Greater Greater Washington.

Metrorail station names are long. Long enough, in fact, that they’re a source of frequent debate, whether it’s comparing Metrorail station names to those of similar systems, or proposing new station names. The consensus among many transit advocates is that the long station names do little to aid wayfinding, and if anything are probably actively harmful to the usability of the Metrorail system. Now, WMATA has developed a new set of station naming guidelines.

These guidelines were previewed at last week’s meeting of the WMATA Riders’ Advisory Council, and a fervent debate on station names followed. When the issue of shortening certain station names was discussed, some RAC members proceeded to call for an elongated timeline, extensive outreach programs, public hearings, and more. There was even some discussion of not changing certain station names, out of a fear of political repercussions.
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Transparency at the RAC

I will be submitting the following item to the WMATA Riders’ Advisory Council as a public comment in advance of next week’s meeting; I am publishing it here for public reference.

On the agenda for the March 2, 2011 RAC meeting, there was an item titled “Audio/Video Recording of Council Meetings”. Time constraints meant that the agenda item itself was deferred, but the presence of a local television news crew forced some discussion of the issue nonetheless. The matter has also come up at other RAC meetings since the January 3, 2011 special meeting on bag searches. While I understand that the RAC has been advised by WMATA’s Office of General Counsel to develop a policy on recording of RAC meetings, I would urge the RAC to carefully consider the implications of such a policy, particularly if it is at all restrictive.
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Fare policy≠fare collection equipment

There’s an unfortunate misconception shared by many (particularly those not well-versed in the innards of transit agencies) that the equipment you use to collect fares has some bearing on what type of fare you charge, or what types of passes you offer, etc. These are actually two entirely distinct issues. Fare policy is a political issue, ultimately addressed by political bodies like the WMATA Board of Directors or the MTA Board. On the other hand, the technical details of fare collection are addressed by technical staff. They do not set fare policy of their own accord, but rather implement the fare structure adopted by the agency, using whatever fare collection equipment the agency procures.

As a result, deploying a new fare collection system does not automatically lead to changes in fare policy; conversely, fare changes need not result in equipment changes (unless an agency is saddled with a legacy AFC system which cannot accomodate those changes). Regrettably, even those who should know better seem to be confused by the distinction, such as in this quote from Lisa Farbstein in a Washington Examiner article on the Smart Passes proposal:

Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said in an email that the agency is already seeking proposals to modify its electronic payment program. “We do not want to prejudge any one technology while we are currently in this competitive process,” she said.

The problem with that statement is that Smart Passes aren’t a technology; they’re an aspect of fare policy, and they can be implemented using whatever fare collection technology the agency chooses, assuming it’s sufficiently versatile.

Conversely, individuals looking for changes to fare policy should not address those concerns to staff members who are charged with the implementation of fare policy; instead, they should address their concerns to the individuals who set that fare policy (in this case, the WMATA Board of Directors). I mention this because there’s a special meeting of the WMATA Riders’ Advisory Council scheduled for tonight, on the subject of WMATA’s New Electronic Payments Program. I certainly hope that individuals do not get the impression that the meeting is going to be a referendum on fares, because that will be unproductive. Price capping, smart passes, and other issues of fare policy must be left to the Board to be decided—what is important at this stage is to ensure that any future fare collection system is versatile enough to implement whatever fare policy the Board may enact. If individuals think that Metrorail or Metrobus fares are too high, or should be changed in some other way, then that’s valuable feedback that should be shared with the RAC or the Board, but it has nothing to do with the New Electronic Payments Program. Moreover, those types of issues are not ones that the staff presenting at tonight’s meeting will be able to respond to or act upon. On the other hand, issues like how the transition from the existing legacy AFC system will be managed, or how unbanked riders will be accommodated (among many issues with the NEPP), are ideal fodder for this evening’s discussion.