Thursday, July 9, 2009

The risks of relying on rail …

   This is another “hometown week” post about my old hometown of Silver Spring, Md.  I don’t usually write about transportation policy in this blog, in part because the topic can swallow up everything else.  But today is an exception.  Near my old hometown was the fatal crash of the Washington Metrorail train a few weeks back.  The crash and its aftermath have slowed the one-track-each-way Metrorail red line, famous for its running through the wealth and power corridor of Northwest Washington (Silver Spring is on the other, unfashionable side).  Having ridden the red line every day for more than a decade, I see this crash as an example of some of the drawbacks of a public transportation policy that places so much Metro emphasis on a thin rail system.  Metro depends on the uncertain largesse of the federal and local government, and in certain aspects the system shows all the distress of a typical underfunded government project.  For example, the red and green lights that tell riders whether a turnstile is set to enter or exit have faded so much over the past 30 years that many stations have resorted to crude hand-written signs, crudely taped on the turnstiles; in other stations, it is simply trial and error for hopeful riders.  This week came news that the technical problem that Metrorail failed to notice probably would have been noticed by San Francisco’s BART, which is often compared (sometimes favorably, sometimes unfavorably) to Washington’s Metro. 
     The focus of so much money and transportation policy on one complicated rail system holds great risks.  If I were to run public transportation policy, I would put more money and emphasis on dedicated-lane bus routes – a simpler and cheaper technology and more flexible from of transportation, but something that is sorely lacking in many cities in which billions have been  spent on the more glamorous systems of rail ….

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