Politics & Policy

D.C. Commuters Live in a Randian Nightmare

Unchecked incompetence can have lethal consequences.

A woman lost her life and dozens were treated for smoke inhalation on Monday in Washington, D.C, after an incident that bore an eerie resemblance to a scene from an Ayn Rand novel.

Just before rush hour, a Yellow Line train got stuck in a subway tunnel outside of the L’Enfant Plaza station stop, and the tunnel, train cars, and subway platform filled with smoke, making breathing difficult. The platform was evacuated, but those stuck in the train were forced to suffer for up to an hour, according to some passengers. The Associated Press reported many passengers felt like they were going to die. The National Transportation Safety Board issued a statement saying that the smoke was caused by “an electrical arcing event,” which occurs when the third rail comes into contact with water. The agency has promised that it’s investigating the incident.

The following video was reportedly taken inside one of the trapped subway cars.

In February 2013, unexplained smoke, also caused by electrical arcing, caused major delays on the Green Line. An anonymous blogger for the popular website “Unsuck DC Metro” tried to get to the bottom of how that incident was handled. You can read the entire account, here, but the bottom line is: Metro employees are incompetent. According to a source in the blog post, “There’s very little knowledge of how Metro really works at OCC [Operations Control Center]. They’ve worked at OCC, and that’s it, yet our lives and yours are in their hands, and the way Metro is set up, they make all the decisions. They’ll do anything to avoid making any kind of decision, so they call the fire department and wash their hands of it all.” And indeed, the fire department was called during Monday’s disaster.#page#

This certainly sounds like the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) us locals all know and love. Metro employees seem incapable of solving even the most minor problems, and the sentence, “It’s not my responsibility” is often on their lips, at least in my experience. In 2012, the Washington Times did a three-part report on WMATA that found it had a “clubby culture of favoritism in which merit has little to do with promotion.”

“In typical examples,” the Times reported, “court and Metro records show, a black man who spent eight years in prison for dealing PCP was promoted to a high-level management position soon after his release, and whites in the same positions as blacks with far less seniority are inexplicably paid less.”

D.C. politicians have usually shown a total lack of concern with the mismanagement of the mass-transit system serving the national’s capital. Olson notes that last March, in an interview with DCist, Muriel Bowser, then-candidate for mayor, “spent 450 words responding to a question on the state of the Metro system. All 450 were on the topic of how to get WMATA to hire more D.C. residents/voters.” After Monday’s incident, in an attempt to show that she’s doing something, Ms. Bowser sent a letter to the National Transportation Safety Board “establishing a clear point of contact and open channels of communication,” which, of course, she promptly tweeted out. 

It’s probably too much to hope that D.C.’s politicians will wake up and smell the smoke and actually hold anyone accountable for this incident.

Meanwhile, Muriel Bowser doesn’t have to take the Metro home from work, but I do — and I hope I make it out alive.

— Christine Sisto is an editorial associate at National Review Online.

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