The End of “SafeTrack” – The Beginning of “Routine Maintenance?”

July 7, 2017

On June 29th, 2017 around 700 Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) employees hit the stations to thank Metro users (in the form of a coupon for fast food coffee, even though WMATA still bans drinking beverages on its trains and in its stations) for enduring the year of track work and service interruptions.

The program, known as “SafeTrack,” began in June of 2016 after fires, crumbling stations, and derailments posed safety concerns across the WMATA’s Metro system. Sixteen “surges” scheduled over 309 days of impact between June 2016 and June 2017 addressed maintenance needs along all six Metro lines in the DC area causing service cuts and shutdowns. Metro riders experienced crowded stations and trains, longer waits and travel times, as well as occasional completely canceled service.

Like many other public transit agencies in the United States, WMATA had fallen behind on maintenance since the system opened in 1976. The goal of SafeTrack was to complete a backlog of projects on an expedited timeline. The ambitious schedule allowed WMATA to complete three years worth of projects within just over one calendar year.

Delayed maintenance is not a problem unique to WMATA or to heavy rail public transit. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave America’s Infrastructure a grade of D+ this year, which is just slightly above the ASCE grade for public transit infrastructure, which fell to a harrowing D-, gradually slipping from a 1998 grade of C-. The point the comes across clearly both in the ASCE report cards and in the increasing number of train derailments across the country that our public transit infrastructure has been falling into disrepair for years and we have not yet addressed the problem.

In order to avoid the same system degradation again in thirty years (or less), WMATA must stay up-to-date on track, station, and rolling stock asset management and maintenance. They look ready to continue right on with routine maintenance, and have planned schedules and service to accommodate anticipated maintenance projects. However, The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has expressed concerned that the agency oversight isn’t quite there yet and has hit WMATA with a stick, withholding five percent of FY2017 funds until collaborative governance and other requirements are met for the State Safety Oversight Program (The FTA’s authority in the SSOP was covered in this August 2016 ETW article). Cracking down on the Washington DC area also shows the rest of the country that the FTA is serious about monitoring safety oversight for our nation’s public transit systems.

Unfortunately, while SafeTrack may have helped improve safety on the DC Metro, the program hasn’t seemed to do any wonders for the public perception of the agency. The negative perceptions associated with safety overhaul programs like SafeTrack may be one reason why other cities, whose public transit infrastructure is also degrading faster than it is being repaired, are hesitating to take similar drastic steps. Although New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo recently declared a state of emergency for the New York Subway, few plans or action for maintenance, repair, or policy changes have been rolled out.

Fostering positive public opinion and a sense of ownership of the public transit system may be one way to mitigate public pushback. The MARTA Army in Atlanta brings MARTA riders together to take agency in the system with responsibilities such as posting schedules at bus stops and assisting new riders when the roadways fail. Many agencies host popular hackathons that take place in cities around the world, where transit agencies share their data with computer scientists, engineers, and enthusiasts to develop new programs, mobile, and web services or interfaces. Meanwhile, Governor Cuomo announced the MTA Genius Challenge Grant in attempts to bring new ideas to the MTA, a program that closer resembles an open approach to contracting such as with Open Cities programs.


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