Unsettling WMATA Metro Numbers

Black and Whites

Understandably, large companies don’t want their skeletons in the closet revealed to the world. however in the case of the WMATA, their skeletons seem to be bursting at the seams, culminating with the 2009 red line crash that killed 8 passengers and 1 driver. Although it has been two years since the incident, WMATA doesn’t show much sign of improvement when it comes to customer satisfaction and overall management vision. They have undoubtedly made some steps in the right direction by doing track maintenance and improvements that should have been done over the years, but does this reactive style of asset and problem management really earn trust with the riding public?

Breda control room

I’ve been keeping tabs on WMATA Twitter contributors (both the company’s side and its critics). Some good ones to follow are UnSuck DC Metro (WMATA critic), Dan Stessel (WMATA PR), Metro Opens Doors (WMATA official Twitter), Fix WMATA (Hot Car Central), Post Metro Girl (Washington Post’s Metro Writer), and Metro Plus Side (WMATA Advocate). one tweet caught my attention today:

“NYC’s deadliest subway accident killed more than all metrorail incidents combined”

It looks like the incident this tweeter is referring to dates back to 1918 where 97 people were killed after a train lost control while entering a tunnel. This got me thinking – is the WMATA more or less dangerous than New York City’s MTA?

empty train car

Let’s look at the two areas of service:

Washington DC Population: 5,580,000
New York City Population: 8,175,133

Washington DC Density: 9.8 people /sq mi.
New York City Density: 27.5 people /sq mi.

It doesn’t seem like a crazy big difference in reaching out to riders – we are both well-populated metropolitan areas. But the biggest thing is that in NYC, more commuters use public transportation than personal vehicles like cars. Due to NYC being almost 3x more dense, it makes sense there isn’t much room for cars. How big an impact does that make? we’ll have to look at other factors, like subway breadth:

WMATA Stations: 86
WMATA Lines: 5

MTA Stations: 468
MTA Lines: 24

This is consistent with the density information above, we’d expect more MTA stations to make up for the lack of private transportation. Overall we’d expect the MTA’s absolute numbers for usage to be far greater than the WMATA, which you can see below by the dramatic differences in ridership:

WMATA Annual Ridership (Latest verified data 2006-2007): 130,750,000 rides taken annually
MTA Annual Ridership (Latest verified data 2007-2010): 1,592,615,263 rides taken annually

Now we’ve got some raw data to work with!

We can confirm our thought that NYC uses their MTA more by doing a simple calculation by dividing the annual ridership by total population, this should yield a “rides per capita” value:

WMATA: 23.4 rides per capita per year
NYC: 194.8 rides per capita per year

Considering there are about 250 work days for an average joe, NYC’s Riders Per Capita defintiely supports the idea that most New Yorkers take the subway to work. Granted, this is a cursory calculation, and there are many more factors involved, but you get an idea that the MTA is used more by its population than the WMATA is by the DC population. Note that “rides per capita” is derived from the entire service area which makes WMATA look really low.

So onto the big question, how does the WMATA compare to the MTA in terms of passenger deaths? for this information, I had to gather data for the MTA. Pubmed had some detailed information about the MTA’s deaths, which I gathered:

MTA Deaths 2003-2007Suicides – 111
Accident – 76
Undetermined – 20
Homicide – 4
Total – 211

the WMATA data was a little trickier. there was no available consolidated report of subway deaths. I found one report that claimed over the 33-year history, there have been 11 deaths, but after looking more into it, I think it was under-reported as I found a 2007 death caused by WMATA that was not reported for that year. The only year I got comprehensive subway death information was for 2009, but that was the same year as the terrible subway crash that killed 9 people. In order to dilute that data and make it more “fair”, I took information from 2006-2009:


WMATA
2006-2009 Pre-Crash: 3
2009 Post-Crash: 21
Total: 24

In order to compare deaths, I took the Average Annual Ridership and divided it by the Average Annual Subway deaths to get a result of “rides per death” – or in other words, how many rides does it take to result in 1 death.

Average # rides to result in 1 death
WMATA – 21,791,667
MTA – 63,704,611

Which means the WMATA encounters 1 death about every 21 million rides, where the MTA encounters 1 death every 63 million rides. Based on the limited data, it appears the MTA is a safer bet than the WMATA. Granted, if you take an average commuter that rides 250 days a year (500 one-way trips), it would take about 43,000 years for a commuter to be killed on the subway. Looking at it another way, WMATA averages about 1 death every 5-6 years – which doesn’t sound too bad, especially when compared to personal vehicle travel (somewhere around 40,000 annually) or smoking (over 400,000 annually). Still somewhat unsettling that if you consider the MTA to be the “gold standard” for subway systems in the US, we appear to be pretty far behind.

in the future, I’d like to see data that addresses things like:
– whether or not the deaths were preventable (suicides, accidents, homicides, etc)
– publicly available (and easy-to-access) information of root-cause analyses of the deaths/accidents
– data on delays and time/cost analyses of what an orange or red line delay costs a commuter (eg if a train gets derailed, how much time-cost does a commuter endure)
– efficiency data on what the absolute maximum capacity of metro is and how well the trains are allocated to bring people to where they need to go (especially on special events days like sports events, national events, etc)
– cost distribution to see how much my $4.50 fare goes to pay workers, fund maintenance, pay for improvements, etc
– information about how much time is spent on maintenance per unit of track for other major subway systems and how they compare to WMATA
– open information about the “dark spots” in the system where WMATA central control can’t “see” the trains due to malfunctioning equipment, incompatible hardware, or other problems
– come to think of it, maybe just a more transparent management (ie transparent to the public) would do wonders for WMATA’s image

Commute Home

we’ll see what if things change, but for the time being – I’m still a WMATA critic. the WMATA has the potential to really be an example of subway transportation for the world – not just give their own titles and accolades to appease the general (non-commuter) public.

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