In Washington D.C., the trains don’t run on time. There are frequent fires in stations and tunnels, urgent maintenance forces single-tracking, and no one seems to have any idea when it will all get better—in fact, it may well get worse.Why are things so bad? The conventional wisdom is that we don’t invest enough in our mass transit systems. As a result, deferred maintenance costs have piled up and the Metrorail system is in disrepair. But we’ve pointed out that the picture is more complicated, as a recent story from WTOP illustrates:
A Metro worker blamed for falsifying records about the tunnel fans that failed during last year’s deadly smoke incident near L’Enfant Plaza has been granted his job back by an arbitration panel — and Metro’s largest union has just filed a lawsuit against Metro because the worker hasn’t been reinstated yet.Court documents obtained by WTOP show Mechanic AA Seyoum Haile was fired by Metro the month after Carol Glover died on a smoke-filled Yellow Line train. Metro found that preventive maintenance activities that Haile had signed off on for a fan shaft near the smoke incident had not really been done.The Metro investigation found that no computer logs from the Rail Operations Control Center or radio recordings showed any evidence that the appropriate tests had been done Nov. 6, 2014, despite paperwork filed by Haile that indicated the tests had been completed.“You have shown a pattern of routinely falsifying [preventive maintenance] records for fan shaft FL-01 a critical fire/life-safety system, to include falsely representing communication with an Operator from an earlier test at a different fan shaft,” the Metro investigation concluded.Haile also had signed off on tunnel fan tests at the same site last Oct. 3 and Sept. 24; there is no audio or computer evidence of that testing either. There is no evidence that the fans were turned on by Haile or his partner at the fan site.
Union practices add all sorts of costs to American infrastructure. Unions negotiate expensive pensions (which they then invest in inefficient ways), and they block the implementation of cost-saving technologies which would result in fewer operators and repair men. But perhaps the most dangerous part is how unions derail responsible oversight and basic day-to-day management. One of the most egregious ways they do this is by protecting incompetent workers.In conversations about public schools, even Democratic politicians in blue states have begun to recognize the ways in which teacher’s unions operate at cross purposes with the needs of parents and students. Will those same people finally recognize that a similar dynamic is making people late to work and even, arguably, getting them killed?There are, in fact, some effective ways to limit the power of public transportation unions. In London, where transit unions go on strike regularly, the red bus routes have been contracted out to private operators. The result is that when the tube shuts down, the bus companies just run more buses to meet demand. People’s commutes are delayed, but they aren’t completely ruined.Madrid is another instructive example: its Metro system was expanded at a low cost through private-public partnerships. Privatization is often a dirty word in America, but it might be a smart way out of America’s mass transit nightmares. Indeed, if local governments can’t figure out a way to rein in public sector unions and can’t come up with the funds to stop the tracks from catching on fire, turning to the private sector might be the only option.