Monday, April 25, 2016
Metaphor on Rails
- Divided jurisdiction. With Maryland, Virginia, and DC sharing responsibility, nobody is responsible.
- Deferred maintenance and short-sighted political decisions.
- A lack of a dedicated funding stream for operating budgets.
- “Nobody really believes in a safety-first culture; they only believe in it after the fact when something bad happens. Really what they believe in is “Me get home first.”
But there are plenty of parallels to the troubles community colleges and the rest of higher education currently are having with the railroad experience, well beyond Washington's Metro hitting the wall that predictably happens with any publicly funded internal improvement. (Public officials love groundbreakings and ribbon cuttings. Keeping the Mechanical Department in replacement brake cylinders, or the Mathematics Department in chalk and notepads, not so much.)
And I've been pointing out the parallels for a long time. "The railroads discovered that in some ways they had to turn the clock back to 1945, replacing some second and third tracks, and replacing some main lines that had been taken out of service. Are any academic administrators sufficiently forward-looking today? Or will the current crop of administrators have to retire, as was the case with the old-line railroad administrators, before there is any change?" I think you were with DeVry at the time, Matt. We were into our second decade of excellence without money at Northern Illinois.
And what headquarters measures, it gets more of. Lots of ominous rail parallels there. Then there's the inevitable conclusion. "Run-down track, demoralized crews, chronic mechanical failures. Finish the argument yourself."
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The NYC subway is much more robust than the DC Metro in large part because when they initially created the Metro, they weren't envisioning the population of today. (The roads are the same way, and oh man.) The Metro was intended as a way to get suburbanites into and out of the city for work and major events. This led to two decisions that made sense at the time and bite everyone in the ass now.
First, since the trains weren't going to run all the time, maintenance could be done on nights and weekends. In the face of demand -- DC's population explosion of recent decades -- they greatly expanded service hours, thereby cutting into maintenance time. A fat political win at the time, a giant nightmare now.
Second, when they designed the system, they did not design it with redundant track lines. The entire system is only two track lines wide, everywhere. Underground line construction is hideously expensive, and adding whole redundant lines in case of problems would have added more to a budget that was already in peril. There was plenty of maintenance time built into the schedule anyway, right? Well, yeah. So now if there is a problem on a track, that part of the line has to "single-track," with trains taking turns in the one open tunnel. This slows traffic very badly.
(Another bit of amazing design short-sightedness was in station design. Escalators. Holy crap, the escalators. I could talk for an hour on the abundant stupidity behind Metro's escalators. What seemed like a brilliant design for the 1970s-80s aged very, very poorly.)
They built a fairly simple, brittle system that only functioned with constant maintenance. Since it worked well and served a huge need (traffic here is mind-blowing), it was pushed and pushed without consideration for what that would mean. And yeah, now it's collapsing. Metro is now talking about shutting down entire lines for months at a time to fully repair everything. People are freaking the hell out.
Meanwhile, they just recently opened up the Silver Line, a monstrously expensive extension of the system towards the wealthier burbs that took forever and a day to finish, and intend to keep pushing the line towards Dulles Airport. [facepalm]
It's a great system with some massive underlying issues that have been pushed down the road for decades. Now the road has ended and it's fugly.
Yeah, the parallels to the higher education sector kinda leap out and bite your face, don't they?
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