A woman died after a southbound Yellow Line train got stuck in a smoke-filled tunnel just outside the L'Enfant Plaza Metrorail station in Washington, D.C., Monday afternoon. At least two others were critically injured, plus dozens more sent to area hospitals.
There's a lot we still don't know about the precise source of such heavy smoke (though Metro has a recent history of winter weather-related arcing insulators causing smoke), and why it reportedly took 40 minutes for the train to begin to be evacuated. The National Transportation Safety Board and the Metropolitan Police Department are both investigating.
But what we can say almost for certain is that this tragedy is going to kick off a fresh wave of outrage over the current state of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. Even if it turns out WMATA handled Monday's emergency precisely by the book, and that the conditions that led to the smoke were just some terrible fluke, D.C. area commuters have plenty of reasons to be angry and suspicious.
Keep in mind it's been less than six years since the Red Line crash of June, 2009, in which nine people were killed and dozens more injured when two trains collided just as rush hour was about to begin. The human toll of that tragedy has been a hard thing for the city to forget, not least because it led the transit agency to impose manual train control throughout the entire rail system (the NTSB eventually ruled that faulty automatic train control signals and a culture of neglect inside WMATA were to blame for the crash). Every herky-jerky stop and start since has been a daily reminder of the transit agency's failures. Automatic train control has only begun to be reintroduced, in a small part of the system, as of a few months ago.
There have been plenty of scandals since, like a rash of worker injuries and deaths. In 2013, passengers trapped in a tunnel on a stalled Green Line train endured hours of chaos and panic before they were evacuated, and the NTSB was critical of a "lack of sufficient information aboard the incident trains" in that case. There have also been more mundane annoyances: epic rush-hour delays for days in a row; seemingly endless escalator repair projects and outages; and five-plus years of weekend track work service interruptions that at one point prompted the Washington Post's editorial board to demand an answer to if and when "normal" service would ever return to the region.
So when D.C. Metro riders are confronted with yet another tragedy like Monday's—a passenger death, survivor descriptions of a harrowing, frightening ordeal—you can forgive them for expressing some understandable anger.
Trains are never on schedule. Our elderly can't get up the escalators, because they're always broken. What in the hell is #WMATA good for?— Keith White (@Keethers) January 13, 2015
I'm officially less concerned by the possibility of a terrorist attack than problems #wmata can control--dilapidation & safety procedures— Jane McMurrey (@jmcmurrey) January 13, 2015
Still, in the midst of so much raw emotion, frustrated and upset mass transit riders would do well to remember at least one key fact about transportation safety in the United States: commuting by rail or public bus is still far, far safer than virtually any other mode.