Wednesday, July 01, 2009

From the Editor: What can we learn from this?

Written by 

By William C. Vantuono, Editor

vantuonoportrait.jpgMost catastrophes don’t happen as the result of a single failure. There’s usually a series of oversights or smaller failures that eventually lead to a much larger, more awful occurrence.

Last month’s tragic wreck on the Washington Metro’s Red Line, a rush-hour rear-end collision at speed that claimed nine lives and caused numerous serious injuries, resulted from a combination of factors. While it will take several months for the National Transportation Safety Board to issue an official report on the crash, we can piece together a few parts of the puzzle.

The crash itself, NTSB investigators said the next day, resulted from a failure of the Metro’s automatic train control system to detect the presence of the train that was hit. That train had come to a full stop just north of the Red Line’s Fort Totten station. This condition is known by signal engineers as a blackout.

Train operator Jeanice McMillan, 42, had no chance to stop the following train as it rounded a curve at speed. She hit the emergency brake button, but it was too late. She and eight passengers perished as her train, equipped with the Metro’s oldest, original 1000 Series railcars, slammed into the stopped consist, telescoped, and tore open like an aluminum soda can. Both trains were operating in automatic mode.
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While the train control system failure apparently caused the wreck, the dead and the injured may have had a much better chance had the train been equipped not with 1970s-vintage 1000 Series cars, but with the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority’s newer railcars, which are built to recent, much stronger crashworthiness standards. In 2006, the NTSB recommended that WMATA accelerate retirement of its 1000 Series cars, but the agency said it could not. Why? As WMATA wrote to NTSB three years ago, it was “constrained by tax advantage leases, which require [us] to keep the 1000 Series cars in service at least until the end of 2014.”

Those tax advantage leases, better known as sale-in/lease-out or lease-in/lease-out, were, until outlawed in 2004, a method of financing that enabled funding-constrained public transit agencies to acquire new equipment that they otherwise would not have been able to afford and sorely needed funds for operations and maintenance.

As the Wall Street Journal reported on June 26, “Such agreements . . . typically involved banks buying or leasing municipal assets such as railcars and leasing them back to their original owners. They enabled the banks to claim tax deductions on the depreciation. Those deductions were otherwise worthless to the [transit agencies], since they don’t owe taxes. In return, the agencies got large slugs of cash. [WMATA] estimates it netted around $100 million from its deals. . . If the agency had wanted to break the leases . . . it would have had to pay penalties and fees on top of the cost of buying newer railcars.”

What we have here is an extreme case of unintended consequences. Money doesn’t necessarily buy safety, but it will pay for things like new transit cars and communications-based train control technology that could lessen the effects of a wreck or even prevent its occurrence.

One could forcefully argue that if WMATA, like most transit agencies, didn’t have such a hard time acquiring operating and capital support from its political masters, it may not have had to depend upon complex financing mechanisms to acquire new and better equipment.

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Comments? Email wvantuono@sbpub.com.
William Vantuono

With Railway Age since 1992, Bill Vantuono has broadened and deepened the magazine's coverage of the technological revolution that is so swiftly changing the industry. He has also strengthened Railway Age's leadership position in industry affairs with the conferences he conducts on operating passenger trains on freight railroads and communications-based train control.