It’s a sign of distinction that the Washington Metro Rail system has not one but at least two blogs dedicated to documenting the system’s poor operating condition. One of the blogs reports that, in July, MetroRail suffered from nearly 500 problems that led to a “deviation from normal scheduled service,” all but about 20 of which were due to maintenance failures.
The other blog reviews a recent WMATA report on the system’s health and concludes that “it’s the trains, stupid,” meaning that the train cars are experiencing so many breakdowns that “Metro should lay off the track work for a while” and concentrate on repairing the railcars.
The problem with that is that tracks and signals are responsible for lots of problems too. Broken rails are common, with an average of nearly one cracked rail a week in 2011. Faulty signals, of course, were responsible for the crash that killed nine people in 2009. Signals may cause the fewest number of equipment-related train delays, but nobody wants to admit they were busy fixing doors but letting people die because they neglected the signals.
The other web site complains that the DC metro has some of the highest fares of any transit system in the country when measured by the percentage of operating costs covered by riders (about 50 percent in the case of Metro). But these operating costs don’t include maintenance costs, which are drastically underfunded and which, when any funds at all are spent on them, are counted by the FTA as capital costs. Of course, no one ever talks about maintenance costs when planning new rail lines because those costs are, for the most part, in the distant future.
The real message should be that it’s the incentives, stupid. If most of the money to run the system comes from users, then planners will have incentives to design the systems to be cost effective and managers will have incentives to put resources where they are needed, such as maintenance, rather than into new construction when they can’t afford to maintain what they’ve got. Unfortunately, our transit systems are mostly funded out of tax dollars, which mainly gives transit agencies incentives to figure out ways to wheedle more dollars out of taxpayers. Since, for the most part, the taxpayers don’t actually ride transit, managers have little incentive to plan or run the transit systems for the users.