I get a daily email designed to keep me up to date on current engineering issues. It’s a clearinghouse for infrastructure, legal, and research that the National Society of Professional Engineers thinks I should know. It’s mostly links to stories of the day, so it tends to cluster on certain issues for an extended period of time so I tend to get daily reminders of whatever engineering issue is in the public eye. Right now it’s ‘fracking’ mostly. Nuclear power was the big one for awhile after the Japan earthquake, but it’s finally tapering off.
A couple of years ago it was all about the safety issues on the Metro, the Washington subway line. There was a big accident just about exactly two years ago that killed 9 and injured 80. After the accident the Washington Post went digging and published a series on the history of unsafe practices of the Metro. A quarter of the safety staff positions were vacant. That’s a lot of empty spots in an extremely important area.
So, guess what was rushed into my head last month when the escalator spit me out on the platform of the DC Metro station at Ronald Reagan Airport? Yeah, being an engineer is usually good because I know how safe things are, but in this case not so much.
And when we were in the tunnel under the Potomac and had to stop for another train to pass, I totally didn’t think about this story a train stopped less than 35 ft from the train sitting on the tracks in front of it, and then heard the train behind him stop within 20 ft of his own train. Not even a little bit. (I did contemplate the wisdom of having the military’s administrative HQ so close to a heavily populated city, but that’s for a different post.)
Apparently it’s a bit of a problem figuring out who is in charge of the Metro since it spans local government jurisdictions in Virginia, Maryland, and the District. Not to mention that a lot of federal employees ride it and most of Congress keeps an eye on Metro since they spend a lot of time in the District. I didn’t read this part until I got back, but they’re still having the same problems two years after the big accident.