Subway Stories: DC Metro and the Problem of Maintenance

By Zachary Schrag

If your Metro train to the AHA conference hotels seems to be taking longer than expected, or if the platform feels more crowded than you remember from AHA 2014, you aren’t imagining things. The past few years have been tough ones for the region’s rapid transit system, and it’s showing. 

With the upcoming AHA annual meeting in Washington, DC, Zachary Schrag reflects on his approach to the history of the Washington Metro, and the need for more histories of maintenance. Josh via Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

Since March 2016, we’ve seen an emergency 29-hour shutdown of the entire system for safety inspections, weeks-long closures of individual segments for extended trackwork, and estimates that the system needs between $15 and $25 billion over 10 years to regain safety and reliability. Nor is money the only issue. From falsified reports by track inspectors to squabbling among board members, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which runs Metro, has suffered from serious management failures. And ridership keeps dropping, with a major factor being the rise in the number of area workers who spend a day per week working from home. As Representative Barbara Comstock warned in December, “Metro is a system in crisis.” While public officials scramble to craft a new future for Metro, I have been wondering if I studied the wrong past. Perhaps I should have written less about Metro’s creation, and more about the challenges of sustaining it.

I didn’t see this coming. When I published The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro in 2006, Metro ridership was still climbing, and the challenge appeared to be how to expand the system to serve greater numbers, not how to repair it with reduced revenue. To be sure, I included a 2004 warning about a possible “death spiral” if Metro didn’t get another $1.5 billion over six years for maintenance and improvements, a figure that now seems small. But Metro had faced equally serious financial crises in the past. Even as problems mounted in the years after the book’s publication, nothing radically changed my understanding.

Then the crisis of 2016 made me wonder if I had asked the right questions during my research. I still think my original questions remain important. To understand Metro’s failures, as well as its successes, we need to understand the problems its designers were hoping to solve, and the tools they had at hand, from the technology they could deploy to the political climate in which they operated. To this end, I wrote chapters on topics ranging from freeway protests to modern architecture to the inflation of the 1970s, and I still believe all of those stories help us understand Metro today. But in my introduction, I rather confidently wrote that “such topics as labor relations, bus operations, and maintenance” were “secondary to my basic questions of how an entire metropolitan area faced its choices about transportation.” That sentence has not aged well.

And so I have read with both interest and chagrin the calls by such scholars as Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel for historians to focus less on innovation and more on maintenance: “the work that goes into keeping the entire world going.” Intellectually, they are surely right, and Metro offers as good an example as any. As Metro collapsed, I wished I had clearer answers about its creators’ expectations for maintenance and eventual rehabilitation, and the money to pay for them.

But telling stories of maintenance isn’t easy. For one thing, innovators do a better job of publicizing their work so historians can write about them. For example, thanks to architect Harry Weese’s conviction that he was designing for the ages, and thanks to the work of the archivists at the Chicago History Museum, I was able to explore Weese’s papers to trace his thinking as he designed subway stations unlike any the world had seen. By contrast, the internal transit authority documents that would show decisions to defer maintenance in the 1990s or 2000s are inaccessible to scholars, if they still exist at all. Even in retrospect, I don’t know that I could have written more than I did about the seeds of Metro’s current woes.

And even if we have the sources, how shall we write the history of maintenance? We know how to tell creation stories, whether as tales of heroic achievement (such as David McCullough’s books on the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal) or more skeptical takes about winners and losers. I modeled my own book on The Park and the People: A History of Central Park, by Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar, as well as other books about the design and construction of public works. Just as politicians prefer to cut ribbons on new projects than to raise taxes to repair old ones, historians as storytellers may be attracted to the shiny. Compelling stories of upkeep—or its absence—will need new narrative strategies. But we do need those stories. From the New York Subway to the flood maps of Houston, we can expect many more questions about what went wrong, and how we can do better.

While both engineers and historians struggle with the problem of maintenance, we still have stories of growth to tell. Along with a struggling Metro, AHA attendees may notice another change in Washington’s transportation: a boom in bicycles. The city keeps adding new bicycle lanes and cycle tracks, and multiple bikeshare systems continue to expand, picking up some disaffected Metro riders along the way. As historians Evan Friss and James Longhurst can tell you, urban cycling has a long history, so its latest incarnation is not so much a story of innovation as one of renewal. Fans of mass transit, and of the kinds of cities it can support, will hope that Metro’s story turns out the same way.

Zachary M. Schrag is the author of The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2006) and a professor of history at George Mason University.

 

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