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From A To B: Silver Line Preps For Testing, UberX Suffers Insurance Woes

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When will the Silver Line run? It's tough to say.
William F. Yurasko: http://www.flickr.com/photos/55676959@N00/8563510770/
When will the Silver Line run? It's tough to say.

One of the biggest transportation questions being asked around the region these days has to do with an 11-mile rail line extending from D.C., through Tyson’s Corner, to Reston. In other words: when will the Silver Line be ready?

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) has reached an agreement with Metro to complete work on outstanding issues that have delayed the Silver Line’s opening, with the hope of handing the project over to Metro this month.

According to Metro general manager Richard Sarles, “some time toward the latter part of May they should be able to turn that over to us, what we call ORD, operational readiness. That allows us to begin our testing.”

Many of the problems contractor Bechtel and its subcontractor Alstom Signaling have to fix involve the Silver Line’s Automatic Train Control system. That’s the system that keeps trains spaced apart, controls their speeds and prevents collisions.

These problems are affecting the reliability of service, meaning they’re not “safety critical” but are troublesome nevertheless. For instance, the contractors have to fix “bobbing track circuits.”

As the project’s executive director Pat Nowakowski explains: “What actually happens is the signal system thinks the track is occupied by a train when indeed that is not the case. It stops other trains from going past that point. Operationally, that is a problem when trains are stopping when they do not need to. The track is not occupied, but the signal system thinks it is so it stops the movement of trains.”

So, the silver lining (pun intended) is the fail-safe system is working, except test trains are stopping when they shouldn’t. Thus, Metro will be taking on an unfinished product. But given all the problems the contractor has had in any number of areas, Metro and MWAA have come to an arrangement that these issues will be resolved while Metro is ramping up to passenger service.

But ultimately, Metro has to see that the system is working reliably enough to open it — and we won’t know if that is the case for a few more weeks, possibly more.

Moving from trains to automobiles, Uber — the car service you order with your smartphone — has been all over the news of late. It’s one of several tech companies that connects people with rides – vehicles-for-hire, to be exact.

Uber has a service called UberX. Two other tech startups, Lyft and Sidecar, offer their own similar services. They all have one thing in common: when you open their smartphone apps to order a ride, someone driving their own personal vehicle comes to pick you up. So basically, it’s not so much a commercially-licensed taxi as a person trying to make some extra cash and using his or her own car to do it.

The companies like to call it ridesharing, but it is really private livery without a commercial license. And in other cities and states, Uber has been sued by people injured in crashes caused by UberX drivers – because the drivers’ personal car insurance policy did not cover them. There is a liability insurance gap. So regulators in D.C. are proposing rules to require these services have enough insurance.

As to whether passengers would be covered by insurance, D.C. Taxicab Commission chairman Ron Linton says, “Hopefully if we can adopt regulations, as we are moving toward, we would be able to say your credit card is safe, your identity is safe, and if there should be an accident the liability is covered so that you will have fair recompense.”

UberX, Lyft, and Sidecar say the proposed regulations are onerous, and that they have already beefed up their insurance policies.

Insurance carried by UberX drivers covers every period of time, whether you are in the car or not,” says Uber’s head of global policy, Corey Owens. “The insurance policies in place cover the passengers, the drivers, and pedestrians at a level equal to or higher than the taxis in the District of Columbia.”

So the District has just started dealing with this issue and it’s unclear how the final regulations, if any, will shake out. Really, we are seeing the clash of innovative technology companies against the traditional, regulated taxicab industry. Consumers have a lot of choices but the changes are raising questions about public safety, at least when it comes to insurance. And the hope is, all those questions will be answered relatively soon.

Music: "A to B" by The Futureheads from The Futureheads / "Free Willy" by Matt Wilson Quartet from Humidity

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