Image via Wikipedia/SchuminWeb (CC BY 2.5)

D.C.’s Silver Line might very well be operational and open to the public by the end of July. In fact, if Metro General Manager Richard Sarles confirms July 28 as his target date on Monday, the announcement would be the the best piece of news to come out of the project since it began.

It would also mark a golden opportunity for Metro to get something right – even if deadlines have already been blown and legal battles may be waiting down the line. Keeping a public transit system like D.C.’s is no easy task, but functional foul-ups only compound PR problems, and Metro could use wins in both categories right now.

Silver Line troubles aren’t the only reasons why Metro has an uphill battle to fight for public trust, though. Here’s a brief history of the six most noteworthy failures that have accumulated over time and put Metro in the mess that it is currently in with riders.

Image via SchuminWeb/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)

1. Ongoing Escalator Issues
Let’s start with one of the most basic and noticeable issues that rail-riding Washingtonians face on a daily basis. Metro has a status tracker for its escalators that updates regularly to show how many of its escalators are operating or not. The unplanned outages there are constantly visible, though Metro is working to remedy the situation by modernizing as many as 128 escalators by 2020.

Still, 2020 is a long way off, and stalled escalators are right up there with hot-box cars and train delays on the list of D.C.-based transit complaints that commonly show up on Twitter. The city’s hot summer temperatures and rainfall complicate matters as well, but projects like a soon-to-be-installed canopy over the Dupont Circle stop’s north entrance may help.

2. The Silver Line’s History
It’s almost impossible to overstate the collective disappointment prompted so far by the first phase of the Silver Line. First of all, work is running late – really late. Long ago, the first phase of the of the rail expansion was tagged to be done and open in 2013. Then, that target got moved into 2014. Bechtel, the major contractor on the project, submitted its work as complete in February, but Metro found numerous problems, including drainage and speaker issues. Thus, work continued, and Bechtel submitted its work as complete once again in April.

Then came the resignations. Pat Nowakowski, who had been the executive director for the Silver Line, and Carol Kissal, Metro’s chief financial officer, both announced their plans to leave. Bechtel, meanwhile, was told that it had more work to do, but it was allowed to let its crews stay to accomplish those remaining tasks while Metro tested the tracks and trained its staff.

Image via WMATA

3. 1982 Metrorail Derailment
Metrorail’s first accident-related passenger fatalities occurred as the result of a derailment downtown on Jan. 13, 1982. A switch between the Smithsonian and Federal Triangle stops was found to have been improperly closed. The result was three deaths and 25 injuries on a day that also saw an Air Florida flight crash into the 14th Street Bridge, killing 78 people.

An operator was blamed for not adequately monitoring the switch, and it wouldn’t be the last time that switch issues proved to be a problem for Metro.

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4. 1996 Shady Grove Wreck
One Metro employee died as the result of this incident during a blizzard in 1996. This is how it was described in an official National Transportation Safety Board report: 

On January 6, 1996, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) Metrorail subway train No. T-111 failed to come to a stop at the above-ground Shady Grove, Maryland, passenger station, the final station on the Metrorail Red Line. The four-car train ran by the station platform and continued about 470 feet into the Metrorail yard north of the station, where it struck a standing, unoccupied subway train that was awaiting assignment. The operator
of train T-111 was fatally injured; the train’s two passengers were not injured. Total property damages were estimated to be between $2.1 and $2.6 million.

The final sight (as you can see above), was a total disaster, and it led to numerous safety recommendations for the Metrorail system.

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5. 2004 Collision at Woodley Park
Just being on a Metro train when somebody yells “Everybody off this train as fast as possible – run if you have to!” should be enough to give anyone in D.C. nightmares. In this case, 20 people were injured as the result of a collision at Woodley Park where one runaway train collided with another that was near a platform. Fortunately, there were no deaths involved, but one operator was dismissed. The NTSB’s report on the incident found that “the probable cause” was “failure of the operator of train 703 to apply the brakes to stop the train,” though the “lack of a rollback protection feature to stop the train when operated in the manual mode” was also blamed.

The picture of the crash alone (as seen above) is enough to never let you look at the Woodley Park station in the same way ever again.



6. The 2009 Red Line Disaster
The worst day in Metrorail’s history by far came in 2009 when one southbound Red Line train struck another, killing nine people and injuring dozens more. Here’s the official NTSB account:

On Monday, June 22, 2009, about 4:58 p.m., eastern daylight time, inbound Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) Metrorail train 112 struck the rear of stopped inbound Metrorail train 214. The accident occurred on aboveground track on the Metrorail Red Line near the Fort Totten station in Washington, D.C. The lead car of train 112 struck the rear car of train 214, causing the rear car of train 214 to telescope into the lead car of train 112, resulting in a loss of occupant survival space in the lead car of about 63 feet (about 84 percent of its total length). Nine people aboard train 112, including the train operator, were killed. Emergency response agencies reported transporting 52 people to local hospitals. Damage to train equipment was estimated to be $12 million.

A bad track circuit was blamed for the wreck, and reduced maximum speeds were introduced. The NTSB later found, however, that the circuit at the crash site had been malfunctioning since 2007.

“There are no words to adequately express the depth of our sadness over this horrible tragedy,” John Catoe, who was Metro’s general manager at the time, said in a statement.

It was the kind of disaster that won’t soon be forgotten be anyone who saw it in person or watched the aftermath unfold in the news.

The simulation below shows what is thought to have occurred.